The air was warm and languid - almost like water. Methos breathed in rich, deep scents - perfumes, mostly, of women clothed in silks and velvets and braid of real gold. It was like something he had not seen for hundreds of years - people possessed of wealth beyond measure, draped in their finery like the idle princes of centuries gone by. And all here, on this ship, drifting listlessly in the middle of nowhere. Everybody was drowsy, lulled into the state by the heat, and by the perfumes, and by the smoke that the men were breathing in over at the far end of the room. They puffed on pipes connected to fabulously inlaid jars, and the wreaths of smoke that they blew out hung over all like clouds. The freshness had long since been driven from the room, and the few dancers left on the floor moved sonorously now. Most of the band had given up their playing, and only two were left to keep up the music - a girl dressed all in black, playing a flute; and a young man in trousers of gold cloth, who was sprawled against the side of the stage, strumming on a lime-green guitar.
It had been an anxious voyage at first. From the four corners of Russia they had seemed to come, bringing with them all that they owned - huge crates and suitcases, and carriages pulled by grand horses. Nobody had turned up empty-handed; nobody showed any sign of having had their wealth wrested away by the revolution. They had all been hoarding it somehow, for just such an eventuality as this - the chance to escape, and sail to a new life elsewhere. They had been seen long before they had arrived - how could they not have been? Methos had stood on the deck of the ship, watching them come; each in a virtual procession. The titled landowners, the rich entrepreneurs, all believing that they were travelling in secret; and when a few soldiers had opened fire at the docks, they had panicked immediately, abandoning the bulk of their treasures and fleeing for the ship. Tumbling aboard in an ugly scrum, they had screamed to the captain to be off, terrified by the tales they had heard of the Bolsheviks; the things they had seen during the Civil War. They had fought on the gangplank, struggled to drag what cases they could onboard, and had left the rest, so many vast family treasures, to the soldiers - which, of course, was just what the soldiers had wanted. Methos had stood on the deck and watched them too, fighting over the gold inlaid tea sets, and the crystal decanters; the cloths of gold, and the paintings with their fabulous frames; though what they wanted more than anything was food. It meant nothing to Methos - just things, possessions, that came and went; as all things came and went. All things, it seemed, except him.
"Show us again!" The voices of young women, drifting towards him through thick, still air. They sounded lively, which surprised him almost as much as the English words. Nobody here seemed very lively, and most people preferred to speak in Russian or French. He turned his head, lazily, to look, and saw a gaggle of girls - a few not far out of their teens, others even younger - gathered around a man at a far table. He seemed to be doing conjuring tricks - the sort done in marketplaces for thousands of years, and which Methos was far, far too old to be impressed by. Or more likely, he mused, too cynical. The girls were impressed, though, as the man made coins vanish and reappear, and snatched cards out of thin air. Visiting cards, noted Methos, rather than playing cards. A neat little nod to the company in this place, where playing cards would probably be met with disapproval.
"More!" shouted another of the girls, in Russian this time. The man answered in the same language, capably enough, but a little haltingly. His accent caused more laughter, and he played up to that, speaking in a sort of cod-Russian that sounded far too studied to be real. Methos watched for a little longer, amused by the excitement of the girls at such basic illusions, and wondering if he had ever been that gullible - or that young. It didn't seem likely. The man laughed along with the girls, pulling a scarf out of one sleeve, and a ring from the other. Two of the girls practically squealed in delight, and Methos guessed that the scarf and ring were theirs. Suddenly this display was more interesting. A scarf and a ring were nothing. Was this mortal magician after bigger game? And sure enough, just a moment later, he saw a very swift and sneaky set of fingers slip a purse from one of the girls, and stow it away in a pocket. A pair of laughing blue eyes glided immediately to Methos; and clearly, deliberately, the thief winked. The old man was quite startled. Not just a thief, then, but a brazen one. A man who not only knew that he had been observed, but didn't seem to care. Despite himself, Methos couldn't help but be interested now.
And he watched on - saw others come over to see the show. The few remaining couples on the dance floor, no longer with the energy even for a slow dance, gliding over to watch; a few of the older passengers, a magnificent group in their grand evening wear, bedecked with a thousand bright jewels. A temptation, Methos was sure, but his thief was no fool. He made no move on anything obvious, and limited himself to taking only those things that wouldn't be noticed immediately. Often his eyes strayed to Methos, to see if his other audience was still watching this second, more clandestine show. There were no more winks, but often there was a smile; slight and warm and certain. Nobody else seemed to notice - but then everybody else was as lethargic as the ship, aware of little more than the magic, the heat, and the music from the lime-green guitar.
Time passed slowly in that room, detached, seemingly, from the rest of the world. Methos began to drowse, dreaming of hot, still towns, in hot, dry lands, where showmen in brightly coloured clothing performed magic tricks in rowdy marketplaces. Places a thousand miles and a thousand years away from this strange, still, unseasonably hot place where he sat now. He mumbled as he dozed, in languages remembered and forgotten; saw faces that no other person alive now remembered; saw laughing crowds watching entertainments laid on by showmen who all suddenly seemed to have the same, smiling face; the same, teasing blue eyes. The thought of the thief dragged him back to wakefulness, and he opened his bleary eyes to the realisation that he was, suddenly, strangely cold. There seemed to be a light wind in the room now - a chill wind, that came from all around. His eyes sought the thief's instinctively; looking, perhaps, to see if this was some trick of his. It wasn't. He could see that straight away. The mortal stood stock still, a scatter of conjured visiting cards falling from one hand mid-illusion. The colour had drained almost entirely from his handsome face.
"Go." His voice was hard - loud and hard, and suddenly very afraid. "Leave, all of you. You have to get out of here." There was no immediate response, but as he began to repeat himself in Russian, one of the young women let out a shout of sudden joy.
"Look!" She was pointing upwards, and Methos looked too, seeing clouds of unlikely snowflakes drifting slowly from the ceiling. A whorl of sparkling white that made the impromptu audience clap their hands and cheer in evident awe. They were yelling for more, as the flakes fell thicker and faster; but the magician was showing no sign of having been responsible. Far from it.
"Leave!" His tone was desperate now; pleading. "You have to leave!" He grabbed one or two of the girls, trying to drag them bodily towards the door, and abruptly the mood around him changed. One of the young men, resplendent in white tie and tails, let fly with an incensed punch, knocking the magician to the ground in a flurry of glittering snow. The fallen man shook his head, as much to indicate a misunderstanding as to clear it, Methos was sure.
"You have to leave!" The mortal was struggling to his feet again, trying his message in Russian and French, as well as his - or so it seemed - native English. "Please, you have to listen to me. You have to get out of here!" But the snow was thicker now; the world was white and dark and cold; and Methos could feel the fear of the crowd begin to grow; could sense that the mortal's unexpected panic had not been groundless. He would have got to his feet then, if he could, but he found that he couldn't move at all. Had no energy, no power over his limbs. He was nothing, blown on a chill wind. Nothing, buffeted by impossible snowflakes in a ballroom in the middle of a heatwave. He was cold, and all was black, and his awareness of the crowd had faded into the ether. He was emptiness, and loneliness, and he was spinning like the tiny flakes of snow. He could neither breathe nor speak. And then he was truly nothing, and the dark void he had always feared had opened up to swallow him.
Methos returned to himself with the familiar sense of disconnectedness; the sensation that his mind and body had been trying to travel to places to which they were not able to go. He opened his eyes and blinked up at the wide, almost circular ceiling; at the several chandeliers that hung from it. All but one had gone dark now. He had no feeling of any great length of time having passed, so perhaps the lights had been stolen by the snow - and by whatever had been behind it. Consumed by a curiosity at least as great as his lingering fatigue, he sat up and looked around. He didn't have to look for long to know that everybody else in the room was dead.
All, that was, except for one of them - the magician, standing in the pool of light from the one remaining chandelier. He was emptying his pockets of the things that he had stolen, dropping them onto a table nearby. His head was bowed, and only when Methos stood up did the mortal realise that there was another survivor. He gave a start.
"What-? How did you live through that?"
"I could ask the same of you." Methos brushed himself off, and made a rudimentary attempt to straighten his bow tie. How was it that whenever he got dressed up, something always happened to his clothes? These were design originals. They weren't meant to get dusty. "Although if I'm honest it wouldn't be my first question. The first would probably be what the hell just happened?!"
"Death." The mortal had ceased to look at him, having returned to the task of abandoning his spoils. Methos walked over to join him, moving a little stiffly, but already feeling himself beginning to bounce back. He was used to death; he had experienced it often enough to know that it had no long-lasting effects.
"You worked hard for that," he said, gesturing at the purse that the magician now held. It was made of lace, and Methos could see the flash of gold coins within. Bright blue eyes stared at him suddenly, in a burst of striking intensity.
"I don't steal from the dead." He bent, dropping the purse beside the body of the girl he had taken it from. She was no more than seventeen or so, guessed Methos - a beautiful girl, now glassy-eyed and lifeless. The purse fell near her outstretched hand, and lay there, untouched.
"The dead don't care," Methos told him. Again the eyes flashed.
"Maybe. And maybe sometimes I'd agree." The mortal turned away, looking around at the still room, where so many people had fallen. "But this is a battlefield. You don't steal from the dead on a battlefield."
"I see." He didn't; not really. Quite apart from the fact that he had stolen from the dead on a thousand battlefields - a hundred thousand, and of his own making - he didn't understand what this man meant. How was this a battlefield? He reached out, catching the other man by the arm, and preventing him from turning away.
"You're upset. Fine." He should probably work on his bedside manner, he mused, for about the twentieth time already just this century. The ruthless approach might be more natural to him, but the rest of the world didn't seem to appreciate it all that much. The mortal looked back at him, expression blank and unreadable. "Upset or not, though, I want answers. We're inside. We're below decks on a ship. I've seen a lot of things in my life, but I've never seen snow fall from a ceiling; and certainly not in the middle of a heatwave. Now you seem to know something, and I'd like to know what it is. They thought it was another of your illusions, but it wasn't, was it."
"No." The mortal sat down on the table's edge, and loosened his tie with a weary hand. When he glanced up at Methos again, it was with eyes that looked old beyond their years. "But think about something else as well. We just sailed out of Leningrad. When was the last time it had a heatwave at this time of year?"
"Freak weather happens." He frowned. "All right, so it's not just the snow that's weird. It still wins the prize, though. Tell me what's going on."
"You wouldn't believe me." The mortal pulled his tie undone, his body seeming to slump as though under some great weight. He cut an odd figure, in clothing that was slightly out of date in this place of formal evening wear. All the tails and white ties; the dazzling evening gowns sported by the dead; it was all timeless, all part of a fashion and dress code that seemed to have been unchanged for years. He looked incongruous in the middle of it all, his tuxedo standing out as different. He looked uncomfortable in it, too - as uncomfortable as the older man felt in his own formal attire.
"Try me." Methos was good at demanding; good at pushing his weight around. People underestimated him, with his young looks and slight figure, but he had authority when he needed it. It came with the real age in his eyes, and with the power that burned inside him. His companion reacted to that, just as most people did, in the end. He gave a slight nod.
"Elementals," he said, as though somehow it was the answer to everything. "Except that's not really a name. Calling them that's like calling you a biped. Might be true, but it's hardly precise. Nobody's ever given them any other name, though. Or rather, a lot of people have, but just in stories."
"Killer snow and now gibberish. Any moment now, I'm going to wake up in my cabin, and wonder what the hell I ate last night." Methos folded his arms, drawing on five thousand years of experience to give him the authority he needed right now. "Let's start with the basics. Who are you, and why aren't you dead?"
"Captain Jack Harkness." The name went with a stiffening of the shoulders; a nod to some sort of military bearing. He undid the jacket of his tuxedo, and checked the watch that hung on a chain from his waistcoat. "It's late. We should check on the others. Make sure the attack was confined just to this room." He didn't move, though. Clearly he didn't want to find out if they were alone now on a ship of the dead. Methos didn't really blame him for that.
"Captain, huh." Well, two could play at that game, and now at least he knew how to get his answers. He straightened his own shoulders; looked the other man directly in the eye. "Colonel Michael Winters, Royal Glosters. Now I think it's time that you answered my questions, don't you?"
"Yes sir." He was caught by surprise, clearly, but there was a definite military instinct in him that stiffened his stance, even though he didn't rise to his feet. "The rest of the ship..."
"If they're dead, they're dead. Going to find out isn't going to help them. Tell me what you know." This was almost fun. Methos had forgotten just how nice it could be to order people around. He was going to have to try it more often; preferably without all the dead people around to kill the mood. Harkness drew in a deep breath.
"It might sound kinda crazy, colonel."
"Magic snow just killed fifty people." Methos wanted to raise an eyebrow to emphasise his point, but couldn't make either brow play ball. "Get on with it, captain."
"Yes sir." He was silent for a moment, clearly searching for the best way to begin. "Like I said, it was Elementals. Creatures that - well, I say creatures, but I have no idea of their biology, and I suppose it's entirely possible that they're not actually--"
"Harkness..." Methos glared pointedly. "If there's a point, get to it."
"Right." He shifted slightly, looking awkward. "Well they live amongst us, but separate. Apart."
"Still none the wiser."
"Give me a moment." He was still frowning, still looking for the right words. "A lot of countries have myths. Stories, as part of their cultures. Leprechauns in Ireland, goblins in Western Europe. Little people, who play tricks. How malicious they are depends on the country, or on the story, but they're all agreed on the idea of little people with some kind of powers. Tales thought up by people who knew more than people know now, and who wanted to find some way of understanding it all. Only they didn't. They never could."
"Leprechauns just killed fifty people?" Methos didn't know whether to walk away in disgust, or keep the other man talking in case he turned out to be dangerous. The look his companion gave him in reply was almost pitying; the look of a man who knew much, and was speaking to one who could never share his knowledge. It was a look that Methos knew well, but one that he was much more used to giving than receiving. It made him feel uncomfortable, and not a little impatient.
"Didn't you hear what I said? Those are stories. These aren't leprechauns, these are the creatures that inspired that legend. Probably. Creatures who live outside of this dimension, but cross with it when they want to. They're here, but they're not here. Most of the time."
"Okay..." Next time he wound up in a room full of dead people, he was going to have to make sure that his fellow survivors were sane. It helped. "So I'm up against a fairy tale. If there's going to be beanstalks, I'd like to know in advance."
"I'm being serious."
"No, you're talking about leprechauns, but I'll let that pass."
"I'm not talking about leprechauns! People are dead. You think that's not something real? These are real creatures, just from outside your understanding. Things that live outside your perception. This isn't about fairy stories."
"You can say that again." He had seen a lot, in his long lifetime. Five thousand years was a long time by most people's reckoning, and Methos had not spent those years with his eyes or ears closed. He knew that there were things he didn't understand; things he didn't yet know; things that happened that were beyond human understanding. All the same...
"You don't have to believe me." The magician looked away, out across the quietened ballroom. There was an expression on his face that Methos found hard to read, which surprised him. A greater understanding of humanity was another thing that five thousand years of life tended to give.
"It's not that I don't believe you." He half did, he realised, despite himself. Perhaps it was this man's own conviction, but there was something about his tale that caught at an old man's imagination. Certainly he didn't believe that Harkness was responsible for the deaths. It hadn't felt like being gassed, or drugged - and the snow had been very real. It still remained, melting slowly, soaking the expensive carpet. Something had to be behind that. His companion seemed to take this as encouragement, falling into a longer explanation, most of which made no sense at all to Methos. He let the other man ramble on, though. Information was good, even if it was bizarre and unfathomable.
"So... so there's these creatures, and they come from here but they don't?" he asked in the end, almost completely flummoxed. The other man looked somewhat impatient.
"Imagine another world that crosses with our own. Here, but not. It's quite simple."
"Is it really. Are they ghosts?"
"No, they're nothing like that." The captain shrugged, looking almost apologetic. "I'm not explaining it all that well, I know. If I could be sure that you'd understand the science involved, then..." He trailed off. "Look, they can't kill me, but they can kill everybody else on this ship; and they might just do that, if they haven't already. You too, even though you just managed to escape." He frowned, the question obviously about to come. Methos held up a hand to forestall it.
"I'll explain later. For now, just tell me how we kill these things." Or, my favourite option, how I get the rest of you busy killing them while I make off in a lifeboat.
"Then you do believe?" Harkness sounded hopeful, if cautiously so, as though he wanted or needed somebody else to share this. The best that Methos could manage was an uncertain, dismissive noise.
"How do we kill them?" he repeated. His companion shook his head.
"We can't, not really. They can die I guess, but not in the usual ways. They're--"
"Something really weird. Yes, so I gather. So basically you're saying that we're up against creatures that can kill us, but that we can't kill in return?" The lifeboat option was looking increasingly attractive. Harkness shook his head.
"It's not that they can kill us. They are killing us. I just hope they haven't got at anybody else. It sucks being the last one left alive." He seemed to shake himself mentally, as though out of some reverie, and turned his eyes back to Methos. "They don't usually bother humans, though. Their dimension crosses with ours, but most of the time they keep to themselves. Why kill these people now?"
"And why leave you alive." Methos well knew why he himself was still alive, and it was clear to him that this man was no Immortal. That meant one thing to him. "It looks to me as though you're the key to all this. If this is a message to you, then you're the only one who can decode it. Maybe you have something they want?"
"You're the one they left standing. You're the one who knew what was coming, and knew what these things are. That certainly looks suspicious to me. If you've got something of theirs--"
"I haven't. And besides, I wasn't the only one they left alive."
Methos squared his shoulders. "I'm hard to kill."
"Yeah, well you're not the only one." Harkness's blue eyes had narrowed, though he didn't press the point. "This is getting us nowhere. I have to figure this thing out."
"We have to figure out how to kill these things, before we end up next on their list."
"Yeah, well good luck with that. The Great War killed dozens of them, from what I hear. The bombs, churning up the soil, burning the ground. Things like that are powerful enough to effect other dimensions, at the weak points between. The Industrial Revolution too, poisoning the earth. You think you can replicate that, go ahead, but you can't go after them with a gun. Find the place where they entered this dimension from their own, and obliterate it with fire and acid, and you might stand a chance. You see any way to do that?"
"Not off hand." Methos's voice was cold, his self preservation instincts making his pulse beat faster. He believed all of this, he realised. Before he had been half-convinced that the American captain was mad. Now he was sure that he was speaking the truth. Maybe it was the snowfall; maybe it was the five thousand years of experience. Maybe it was just the pain and certainty in the blue eyes turned to his. He sat down in the nearest chair. "So what do you think they want? You know them, in some sense. What do you think they're here for?"
"I don't know. Nobody knows a thing about them. Communication with them is impossible, and they're hardly ever seen. Or... well theoretically communication is possible. They've been known to possess people, but it's always fatal. That's communication of a kind. Sort of."
"Not a kind I'd recommend." Methos was remembering stories, though - stories that had been old in civilisations he had seen fall centuries before. "Possession, though... Little people and mischief-making. That does sound familiar. Maybe."
"Exactly." His companion looked briefly pleased, after a fashion, his blue eyes lightening into a sudden flash of a smile that was gone almost immediately. "But like I said, it doesn't tend to go well. Brains short out. Not pretty." He shook his head. "We should find out if the others are still alive. Warn them, if they are. They should know what's going on."
"They'd laugh at you, and probably lock you in your cabin. We need some idea of how to handle this. That's our first priority."
"I don't know how to handle this. The last time I heard of Elementals turning on humans was..." He trailed off. "Well, it was a while ago. There was a mountain, and it was sacred to them. I think they objected to a railway tunnel, but I'm not really sure. In many ways, these creatures are more alien than anything you might find out in space."
"Where I go all the time, obviously. There was something special to them, though, and it was damaged?"
"I guess. Blown up, attacked with pickaxes, whatever." Jack was pacing now, head down, hands in his pockets. His undone bow tie flapped in the breeze of his own making, and his hands, drawing back the material of his jacket in order to reach his pockets, showed the unmistakable presence of a gun at his waist. Methos wasn't surprised. Concealed arms were part of his own mental make-up, and the grand surroundings and expensive outfit hadn't discouraged him from wearing a sword beneath his own jacket. Tails could be surprisingly useful that way; he had discovered that before. Jack's pacing slowed, and he looked up. "If something's got them angry again, maybe it's to do with something else that's sacred to them, like last time."
"Then we work from that. What's sacred to a leprechaun? Gold?"
"If they got mad every time somebody mined some gold, the world would have a whole lot less people in it. And they're not leprechauns."
"Fine. What then? We have to start somewhere. Failing that, we leave."
"I don't know if we could." The earnest captain didn't seem remotely shocked at this suggestion of leaving the ship to its fate. Perhaps the idea had already occurred to him, and been discarded.
"Oh?" It didn't seem entirely likely. In his experience, running away was one thing that he could almost always do, and with aplomb. Few could depart with more speed, more skill, and more downright sneakiness than Methos. He had turned it into an art form. "When faced with insurmountable odds, captain, running away is by far the most sensible option." It wasn't a bad option when faced with surmountable odds, either, come to that. Jack shook his head.
"They're killing people, colonel. It's at least best to wait until we know what's going on."
"Trying to get away could be too. Anyway, I've got no reason to run away. They can't kill me."
"You're pretty sure of that, aren't you."
"Yeah." The blue eyes flared with a sudden challenge, before the military training kicked in again; the deference to a superior officer. "Look, they want something. Best way out of this is to give it to them."
"Perhaps. But I don't plan to stand around and wait for them to work out how to really kill me next time. So if you've got any theories, captain, I'd suggest that you share them."
"I don't know. All I can think about is when they got mad over that mountain. Could be the same sort of thing."
"This ship is old. If they were going to get cross over trees being cut down, or metal ore being mined, they'd have done it years ago, surely."
"Yeah. Probably. I don't know." He looked out of his depth, thought Methos. That was not exactly encouraging. "There's one thing, maybe. It might be a long shot, but they have their religious rituals, like a lot of species. Ceremonies, you know? There's a lot of paraphernalia that goes with that."
"That sort of thing, yeah. It's the only thing of theirs that could really be portable. Somebody could have walked off with... I don't know. A bowl or something."
"Could have appealed to an archaeologist, perhaps, or a scholar." Methos sighed, feeling as out of his depth as Jack looked. "Somebody might have seen these things, and wanted to find out more."
"Could be. It's rare they get seen, but it happens. If we're right, though, and somebody has taken something of theirs, why they don't take it back?"
"Maybe they can't. Not invincible, are they?"
"I doubt it. But that doesn't mean you should underestimate them."
"Believe me, captain, I never underestimate anything. Let's worry about one thing at a time for now, shall we? Somewhere in a ship full of treasures, we're supposed to find one stolen one; and we don't even know what it looks like. It could take days."
"Longer. Could be it's hidden really well, and that's why they can't get at it."
"You're not making me feel any better about this. Taking a lifeboat is still a very attractive option."
"Even if it makes them kill you?"
"I don't die easily."
"That wouldn't stop them." Harkness drew in a deep breath. "I'm not exactly happy with this, you know. But if something has been stolen, and we find it, this might just be over painlessly. More or less."
"And if it was one of the things left behind at the docks?"
"Then we're screwed, aren't we." It wasn't a familiar saying, but Methos had heard similar over the years, in many other languages. He nodded briefly.
"Maybe we are anyway." Especially since, it seemed, he was going to have to search an entire ship for a stolen trinket, or risk being found out and beheaded by a vengeful leprechaun. Life had many strange twists and turns. Some were definitely more strange than others. His companion smiled faintly.
"You could stay here," he offered. "They might not look in here again. They might think they killed everyone."
"Or they might not. I think staying with the one person who knows what's going on sounds like sense. For now."
"I'm not a man to rely on, captain." Methos headed for the door, glad to feel the return of a sense of purpose. There was strength in numbers, after all, and it was better to be doing something, however futile, than staying here in the hope that he wouldn't be noticed. Besides, whatever the arguments against escape, his thoughts still lingered on the lifeboats - and he wasn't going to find one of them hiding in here. "Come on. We should make sure that nobody else comes in here, though. The last thing we need is to wind up in the brig on a murder charge."
"I don't know." There was suddenly an unexpected smile on Harkness's face; a gleam in his bright blue eyes. "Being locked up's not so bad. If you're locked up with the right person." The smirk was surprisingly flirtatious, something that Methos was not at all used to seeing in modern men. He might have raised an eyebrow in amusement, had not the smirk vanished in an instant, as duty returned to the captain's mind.
"We should..." Harkness gestured at the door, and Methos nodded. They should. The moment remained between them, though, all the same - guaranteed to make him think. Inappropriate flirtation and a thorough versing in the bizarre. It looked as though Captain Jack Harkness could be a very interesting companion. How typical, then, of fate to send him along only when disaster beckoned. As many a poet had mused, even before Methos himself had been born, fate was a bitch that way.
Life had a habit of being complicated. It was rarely more complicated than finding yourself - after a lifetime of adventuring throughout the galaxies, with complete freedom in both time and space - marooned on Earth. And Earth in 1869 at that. These people thought that trains travelled fast. Steam trains. The height of exciting travel technology was a ship made of metal. But Jack was adaptable. He was also clever, reasonably well versed in history - and extremely optimistic. He could make the best of almost any situation; and he would, he had told himself repeatedly, find his way out of 1869, and back into more technological times. It seemed impossible, but impossibilities were merely possibilities that hadn't been battered into submission yet. Or conned deviously enough. Or something. Life, however, had had still another curve ball to throw at him. After all, it wasn't every day that a man found he was incapable of dying - and not just 'hard to kill', as he had versed it for the benefit of the gangly young colonel. Actually, completely, impossible to kill. It wasn't as though he hadn't had plenty of opportunity to test the theory. Fate seemed determined to throw an incalculable number of adventures and dangers his way, and many of them had been fatal. Or not fatal, which was rather the point. And, little by little, his wish to leave 1869 behind, and escape to a more advanced age, was coming true; for here he was, making his way back to civilisation a year at a time, un-ageing, undying, and confused as hell. The colonel thought that it was difficult getting to grips with the idea of a race of beings previously unknown to him. He should try being immortal. Dying and then not being dead anymore - now that was difficult to get to grips with. Jack had travelled far and wide, on thousands upon thousands of worlds, and in thousands upon thousands of time zones. He was fluent in the languages of races that nobody else on Earth in this backward age had ever dreamed existed. He knew the ways and customs of creatures that most others, again in this backward era, dismissed as merely mythical. The only oddity he couldn't fathom was himself.
The melting snow that now covered the bodies of the people it had killed was nothing strange to him, then, no matter how inconceivable it might be to Colonel Winters. Searching the ship for some stolen trifle seemed a simple enough task, and his only concern was that the Elementals might kill more people before the search was completed; or that the spoils might be beyond his reach. You couldn't easily reason with the Elementals. They had no great care for humans, and even less care for Jack Harkness. He was the man that they couldn't kill; the man who knew too much of what they were. To them he was somewhere between a nothing and an object of annoyance, or perhaps revulsion. Not that he minded that. Winning the approval of sociopaths was not high on his personal agenda. He was worried, though. If he didn't work this out, then others would die - if they hadn't already. When he slipped out of the ballroom with the young colonel at his side, it was with haste that he moved, rather than with caution. Winters insisted on taking the time to lock the ballroom door before they left on their mission, in an attempt to delay the discovery of the bodies, and Jack fidgeted all the while. The colonel seemed remarkably adept at locking the door with nothing more than a piece of bent wire, which was a talent worth appreciating - but Jack was not at his most patient right now. It was all that he could do to avoid hissing a loud "Hurry up!" With the door locked, and the way ahead clear, though, suddenly the task seemed far less obvious.
"Where do we start?" asked Winters, who seemed, given that he was a colonel, to have a very odd idea of leadership. He had a complete lack of military bearing, too. Jack was beginning to suspect that he had lied about the rank, though he couldn't be bothered as yet to be too annoyed about that. After all, he hadn't made any attempt to stop the pick-pocketing of earlier; and besides, he was cute. All the same, it was something that they were probably going to have to address at some point. He consulted his watch again, more thoughtfully this time.
"It's late. Gone midnight."
"So most people who weren't in the ballroom are probably in bed. That makes it rather hard to check their rooms." Winters looked left and right, a little cautiously. "If you'd stolen a magical whatsit from a gang of leprechauns, would you keep it close to you, or in your ordinary luggage?"
"I'd keep it close. But don't forget it looks that the Elementals themselves haven't been able to find it. We're probably not talking conventional here."
"Meaning I haven't got a clue." Jack started off down the corridor, rather surprised when the other man didn't follow him. "You coming?"
"Yeah." The colonel followed on, though slowly. He seemed reluctant, or perhaps just wary. Again, not terribly colonely behaviour, at least in Jack's experience; though something about it was rather endearing.
"Where's the hold?" he asked. The colonel looked surprised by the question, as though he hadn't really expected to be consulted.
"At the bottom of the ship," he said at length. Jack grinned.
"Yeah. I was hoping for something a little more specific, but we can work with that. You want to split up, or stay together?"
"Stay together. For now, like I said. Why split up, if the hold is pretty much the only place that we can search at the moment?"
"I suppose." Jack shrugged, happy to do as the other man said for the time being. He may not be a colonel, but there was something about him. Something in his eyes, perhaps. Jack hadn't as yet quite worked out what it was. "You think we should let the captain in on this? Might get us a few more hands for the search."
"The captain?" Winters glanced at him over one shoulder. "How many people have you met who'd be prepared to believe this kind of tale? We have a room full of dead people, and the only story we have to tell is something vague about leprechauns."
"I keep telling you, they're not leprechauns." There was something like anger in Jack's voice, and he fought to control it. If Winters really was a colonel, he ought to watch his manners - and the man did have a point, he had to admit. So far he had spent some thirty years in the nineteenth century, and another thirty in the twentieth, and neither had been especially full of the most open-minded sort of people. Ask them to believe in angels, and they probably would. Ask them to believe that inter-dimensional beings were amongst them, and they would blink in confusion - and that was on a good day. Were he surrounded by uneducated country folk, who still spoke of willo-the-wisps and the scattering of salt to ward off demons, he might stand a chance. As it was, he could merely nod, and concede the point. The captain was unlikely to believe him, even with fifty inexplicably dead people as evidence.
They passed two crewmen and a passenger on their search for the docks. The former nodded respectfully at the two well-dressed, if somewhat rumpled gentlemen, and the latter hiccuped loudly, and asked if either had a bottle of vodka. In Russian so flawless that it made Jack raise an impressed eyebrow, Colonel Winters rattled off a series of directions supposedly to more alcohol, which the man acknowledged with a delighted nod, and a chorus of a startlingly rude song about a bishop. He staggered off, followed at length by a dangling pocket watch on a very long chain. Jack grinned.
"I never thought I'd be so happy to see other people. Where'd you send that guy? My Russian sucks."
"I don't know." Winters shrugged, obviously not in the least concerned. "Serves him right for asking for vodka. Horrible stuff."
"There's nothing like it when you're stuck in a Russian winter."
"That's true." Methos winced at a particularly chilly memory. "1881 - now there was a winter. I wouldn't have said no to some vodka then."
"Me either. That was worse than the big freezes a hundred years ago." Jack smiled, slightly awkwardly. "Or so the accounts say."
"Well yes, quite. The accounts." Winters sped up slightly, looking left and right as they reached the end of a corridor. "I don't remember the ship being so damned big."
"These are the bits that weren't included in the tour. Lower levels. You can feel the engines vibrate."
"So I notice." Winters led the way on again. "Can't be far now. I won't be sorry to reach the hold, either. I can't shake the feeling that we're being watched."
"We are." Jack had never expected the colonel to notice. People often didn't, when the Elementals were around. Much of the time it was as though you saw them only when you looked away, imprinted for an instant behind an eyelid.
"Then the little girl I keep thinking I see...?"
"Is one of them, yeah."
"That's... weird. So that's what they look like? That girl is no more than four years old."
"It's not their true form, no. It's just how people usually perceive them. Never did figure out why, but I guess it's less obtrusive than what they really look like. The stories do call them little people, remember."
"Leprechauns, you said. Not scary four year old girls."
"Actually, I said little people. You're the one with the leprechaun fixation." They rounded a corner, and there, ahead of them, lay a large door. It looked like the door to a strongroom, and was unmistakably what they were looking for. The large Cyrillic characters painted onto it proved that, even if the sheer look of it didn't. There was no guard, at least in evidence. Jack's shoulders sagged.
"I miss my old equipment. I could have got through that door in a second once."
"You're telling me that a thief like you can be beaten by a lock?" Winters tried the door handle, just in case. Unsurprisingly it didn't yield. Jack scowled.
"Just trickery. I'm a pretty good con-man, and I know some sleight of hand. I'm hardly Butch Cassidy, though."
"Well, no." Winters felt around in his pockets, and produced his piece of bent wire. "Your hair is the wrong colour for a start. Here. Try this."
"The old fashioned way..." Picking locks with wire was something that he could do, if he had to. Frankly he preferred to use electronic methods; hi-tech tricks for hi-tech locks. Once upon a time there had been hardly a lock in the cosmos that was safe from Captain Jack. Trust Earth to still be languishing in the Dark Ages. Even if he had still been in possession of his tried and trusted gadgets, they wouldn't have worked against something like this. With a scowl he took the wire, and bent to the lock. It was going to be a long job. No wonder Winters had given it to him, instead of doing it himself.
"So tell me." The colonel - if he really was a colonel, which Jack now seriously doubted - was leaning against the wall, arms folded. He slouched well, decided Jack. Few people were able to lounge with quite that degree of professionalism. If there was even one military bone in that gangly body it was hidden extremely well. "Are they watching us because they know we're trying to get them their trinket back? Because if they know that, why aren't they helping? Must be quicker than lurking in corridors watching you being rubbish at picking locks."
"I'm not rubbish at picking locks. This one's just more of a lock than most." He fought back the urge to swear at the thing, and rattled his piece of wire "They don't give a damn what we're doing. Stop thinking like a human. They're nothing like you."
"So what are they doing? Do they want the blasted thing back, or don't they?"
"If you can't do something yourself, hang about and see if somebody else can do it for you." He shrugged. "Hell, I don't know. I'm not an expert, colonel. I'm the best there is, at least here and now, but I only know the basics. Don't worry about it. Try not to think about them."
"That's not easy when I keep seeing tiny children in the corners of my eyes. Don't you see them?"
"Not the kids, no. I see the real thing."
"Is that good?"
"Not especially." He jerked again at the wire, and felt something click inside the lock; but when he tried the door he found that it still wouldn't open. "I wouldn't want to date one, that's for sure."
"That wouldn't be my first instinct, either." Winters leant closer. "How are you doing with that lock?"
"It's coming." It plainly wasn't. He experimented with waggling the piece of wire in the other direction, and tried to remember how to do the job properly. He had picked tougher locks than this before, hadn't he? Still it refused to shift. "There's a lot on my mind, that's all. Distracting me."
"Try not to think about them, you said."
"Yeah. I've never been very good at practising what I preach. 'Sides, it's a little easier to ignore a cute little kid than it is to ignore a seven foot naked monster. Usually I'd admire the view, but there's something about these things. They could curdle milk at three hundred paces."
"So how is it that you get to see what they really look like?"
"I don't know. Just lucky, I guess. I see flashes of the disguise, but..." He shrugged. "Stuff... all kinds of stuff... doesn't work the same way for me. And we've met before. I guess I did kinda piss them off. Might be something to do with that." He frowned then, brain processing what he had just said. "Oh. Sorry. Early twentieth century... gotta get used to that. I... annoyed them quite a bit."
"I sense you're good at that." Winters stepped forwards, as though to take over working at the lock, but before he could take Jack's place, there was a satisfying clunk from deep within the door. Jack twisted the handle, and the door swung open. He grinned.
"You're slow." Winters moved ahead of him, disappearing into the darkness of the hold. "So. Something religiousy then."
"It's as good a theory as we've got."
"In the absence of being able to ask them, yeah. Since speaking to them apparently involves possession and short-circuited brains, none of which fills me with wild amounts of confidence." He had come to a halt, and looked back at Jack now with an expression of faint surprise. "It's dark in here."
"Yeah." Jack had also failed to take that into consideration. "Do you have a flashlight?"
"Yes. In my cabin. It's not the sort of thing that I usually take to a ballroom."
"I guess not." Jack's hand drifted to the leather band that he wore around his wrist. It could be a torch of sorts if he needed it, but that might take some explaining to the man here with him now. Inwardly he shrugged. He could always pass it off as some military prototype. Probably. It was rather unfortunate that Colonel Winters seemed to be anything but stupid. He flipped open the cover and flicked a switch, and a rather limited, but bright, blue glow lit the area around him.
"Useful," commented the colonel. Jack was ready to give an explanation, but he wasn't asked for one. The colonel, far from being amazed, just took it in his stride.
"Comes in handy." He took the lead now, Winters happy to follow the light. It didn't take long, though, before both men began to slow. Heading for the hold might have seemed a good starting point before, but now that they were here they could see what a Herculean task they had to face. Everywhere there were packing crates, boxes, cases, sacks - the relics of so many wealthy lives. To search all of them would take many hours, and there was no telling how long they had. Jack didn't want anybody else killed just because he wasn't quick enough. Beside him Winters muttered something indistinct, the sounds like some language that Jack couldn't name.
"This is madness," said the colonel at length. Jack nodded.
"We need an army."
"Somehow I can't see the passengers being any use." Heaving a sigh, the other man sat down on the nearest crate. "Oh, for goodness sakes, tell those children to go away. They're starting to get on my nerves."
"Hey, if I could, I'd have sent them packing long ago. They're not going to listen."
"I know." Winters sounded short-tempered, the sharp blue light emphasising the irritation in his eyes, and in the lines of his angular face. "I never did like leprechauns. Now I see why."
"You gotta ignore them. Think about boxes."
"Hundreds of boxes, yeah. Don't suppose you've got a crowbar handy?"
"I don't think so." As far as he knew, he had a gun, his wrist-comm, a knife, a pocket-watch, and a pen that hadn't been invented yet. As a burglary kit it was somewhat lacking in burgle. "You?"
"No." He sighed again. "Come on. Let's just get started. We'll know it if we find it, right?"
"I hope so." Jack was rather suspecting that the Elementals would let them know. He just wasn't sure how. "Pick a box, then, and let's get it open. This is going to be a long night."
"You don't say." And hauling down a pair of hefty leather cases, Winters shoved one towards his companion, and set to work.
They opened crate after crate - box after box - leather case after wooden chest after metal container, strewing the hold with straw, newspaper, and a seemingly endless supply of silver tea-sets. Jack, who had made something of a career out of being light-fingered, found many an item that particularly caught his eye and imagination, but it wasn't too hard to resist such lures. Necessity pushed his worst instincts back into the recesses of his mind. Somehow from the occasional glimmers of interest shown by his companion - from the all too familiar glint in his murky green eyes - it seemed that the alleged Colonel Winters was experiencing similar flutters of temptation. So much for the grand officer. Jack was even more sure now that the rank, if it had ever been real, was by no means still a going concern.
"I'm getting thoroughly sick of the sight of silk underwear." Throwing down a particularly large carpet bag, Methos stretched, and rubbed his spine. "There have got to be better forms of entertainment than this."
"I can think of a few." Jack also stretched. "Oddly enough, several of them involve silk underwear."
"I won't ask."
"No?" With a cheerful shrug, Jack glanced at his watch. They had been at this for several hours, but it felt like considerably longer. It was definitely not the most pleasurable way of spending a night. Methos returned to the task with obvious reluctance, the moment's respite an all too brief luxury. "You're good with locks, colonel."
"I know." Methos left it there. He didn't have to explain anything; indeed, he had made it a life's work to explain as little as possible. Jack was obviously interested, though, not quite sure what to make of this supposed army officer, with his talent for picking often complicated locks. Jack himself had merely broken open many of the chests and cases, not bothering to show any particular finesse. Methos, who had also been young once, didn't blame him for his impatience. He even felt it in return. There was something about taking the more civilised approach, however, that appealed to him; helped to keep him from growing too bored with all this fruitless searching.
"So, you often go treasure hunting with total strangers?" Ever the chatty type, Jack liked the idea of conversation to help the job along. Methos, who avoided small talk in much the same way that he avoided sword fights, was rather less enthusiastic. He shrugged.
"I like a challenge. Sometimes. You, I take it, go on at least two pointlessly energetic quests every day before breakfast?"
"I try." Clobbering another lock with a makeshift crowbar, Jack hauled open a wooden box and peered inside. A lot of straw peered back, with a marble bust of somebody or other in the midst of it all. He sighed. "But I'm thinking of changing my career."
"Right now I'm thinking more along the lines of taking some of the more portable stuff, and going for the boats."
"A plan with almost no obvious drawbacks." Methos opened another box, and groaned at the sight of yet more silk underwear. He rummaged through it, just in case, and came up with a rather dashing black silk waistcoat, and half a dozen fur hats. None of them looked as though they were likely to belong to a gang of murderous leprechauns, so he tossed them back, and slammed shut the lid.
"Mass murder's kind of a drawback." Jack also slammed shut a chest lid, having discovered a vast quantity of lead crystal, and at least a dozen bottles of what looked to be a very fine port. "Especially for the people being murdered."
"But those people are very rarely me." Methos turned to the next item on his agenda, and sighed. It did at least look interesting, but it didn't look as though it would be a particularly easy job. "I think I'm going to need a hand with this one."
"No problem." Clambering over a pile of discarded packing stuff, Jack joined him in an instant. "That's a big one you got there."
"Why am I sensing a double entendre in that comment?"
"Because you're the suspicious type, obviously." Jack bent to the task, hauling the chest forward, to where they would have more room. "Nice. This is beautiful work."
"If you like that kind of thing." It was a large chest, as least as long as a man, the curved lid carved with all manner of strange symbols. Methos raised an eyebrow. "Magical runes. Haven't seen these in a while."
"Magic?" Jack looked interested, if somewhat sceptical. "You're kidding?"
"Says the part-time magician."
"That's just sleight of hand stuff, and you know it. My tricks didn't have you fooled for a second."
"Or anybody else, probably. That's half the attraction of a magic show; you know it's not really magic." The old man ran a hand over the carved symbols, his eyes narrowed slightly. "This, though - this is the sort of thing done by people who really do believe. People who claim to be able to do proper magic. Oh, I know how the world works. You young guys come along nowadays, and say that all that sort of thing is nonsense. Some of us have been around, though. Some of us have seen things that aren't so easily dismissed."
"Hello?" Jack gestured around them. "Homicidal leprechauns, remember?"
"Yeah. Fair point." Methos smiled faintly, and straightened up, away from the carvings. "Well, I'm no expert. I can read most languages, but this is a little beyond me. There's a spell of protection there, I think, but I don't know about the rest. I don't think it's just for decoration."
"Protection, huh? Makes sense, I guess, if it's somebody's prized goods in there." Jack shrugged. "Still, it doesn't make any difference to us, does it. We still gotta find out what's inside."
"That might not be such a good idea."
"Scared of a little magic, colonel?" Jack drew his gun, a large, heavy weapon that clearly dated from the previous century. He pointed it at the chest, but Methos knocked the gun away.
"Have you ever heard of being subtle? You don't know what you might damage, firing that. Or who might hear it."
"Fine. You open it." Jack put the gun away, and leant against a nearby packing crate. "Your little pieces of wire aren't going to do anything to that lock, though."
"Given enough time they will."
"Yeah. No shortage of time, that's for sure. What with the monsters wanting to kill everybody on board if we don't get our ion drives firing."
"You really do speak a language all of your own, don't you. And I didn't say I was going to pick the lock that way. I just said I could." Methos bent down to peer more closely at the mechanism. It looked antiquated, but he was sure that it was more than good enough at its job. When he touched it with his fingertips he could feel the strength and the weight of the metal. It was a good lock. Still, he had a little powerful metal of his own. Stepping back, he reached beneath his tailed coat, and with a long, smooth movement, drew his sword. In the dim light it barely flashed; but the light was not so dim that he couldn't see the new respect in Jack's eyes. There was something about a sword that demanded a certain reverence. Methos liked it. Nearby, Jack whistled softly.
"Now that is one hell of a lockpick."
"Size matters." He smiled faintly, and gave the sword a thoughtful twirl. How best to attack the lock? In the end, despite his words to Jack, he abandoned subtlety and went for the all-out wallop. The padlock fell apart with a satisfying clang, and Jack raised a highly amused eyebrow.
"So much for being quiet."
"That was hardly the same volume as a gunshot. Now stop being sarcastic, and help me get this lid open."
"I should stop being sarcastic? Hello Kettle, meet Mr Pot."
"Right behind you, colonel." Taking one end of the chest's big, curved lid, Jack met Methos's glare with a smile that somehow demanded to be returned. Methos resisted the impulse, but couldn't deny that it took a bit of effort. Gripping the other end of the lid, he gave a nod.
"Ready." They lifted the lid. Somehow, around them, the Elementals seemed to loom suddenly closer, as though as eager to peer into the chest as were they. There was a shiver in the air, like a ripple of conversation that the two men couldn't hear - then the lid was open, and Methos and Jack were staring down at their prize. A line of neatly folded shirts, crisp and white, lying on a layer of crepe paper. Methos looked beneath, to find several more shirts, identical in every respect, along with a bundle of plain black ties. His shoulders slumped.
"Magical protection spells for a wardrobe?" Jack also rummaged through the shirts, his expression distinctly unimpressed. "And a boring wardrobe, too. This guy needs a serious makeover."
"Doesn't make a lot of sense, does it." Methos threw back the shirts that he had picked up, and scowled fiercely at them. "They're made of good material, but they're hardly treasure."
"You think there might be something else underneath?"
"I certainly hope so." He had still been holding his sword in one hand, and he laid it aside now, to begin the task of emptying the trunk. Something about the shifting shadows at the corners of his eyes; the lurking children who weren't children at all; made him pick it up again almost immediately.
"If they want to kill you, they're not gonna need a sword to do it," commented Jack. Methos shot him a cool look.
"You might be surprised. At any rate, I didn't get to be this old by being careless."
"You're not so old." Jack's eyes trailed up and down him momentarily, a smirk lighting his eyes. "I'm a pretty good judge, and that's not an old man's body."
"Again, you might be surprised." Methos slid the sword back into its hidden sheath. "And for goodness sakes, turn the flirting down a notch. I don't know what you get away with in America, but this isn't New York. You're too useful right now to see you getting tossed overboard by the captain."
"Sailors never throw me overboard." Jack's grin was infectious, as always. As always, Methos managed to be stubbornly immune. The smile burst into life eventually though, and he shook his head.
"Don't push your luck. I've thrown all kinds of people overboard. I'm not fussy."
"Neither am I." Jack bent to the task at hand once again, scattering the shirts in his efforts to see what else was in the chest. In no time at all, though, he had reached plain wood - the bottom of the chest, with nothing of value in evidence. "Damn."
"You've hit the bottom?" Methos leaned over to look, frowning. "Doesn't that seem a little soon to you? The outside makes this thing look a whole lot deeper."
"A false bottom?" Jack sounded delighted. Methos would never have admitted to it aloud, but the idea caught at his fancy too. Huge, carved chests with secret compartments were definitely good things. Clearing out the last of the clothing, he examined the wood beneath.
"I can't see anything."
"There should be a switch, shouldn't there? Like a piece of the carving that we press? A hidden spring?"
"Something like that." Methos felt around, pressing and prodding things at random. "Or a magic spell."
"You're not serious?"
"Why not? Is it any more absurd than snowflakes in a heatwave?"
"Yes. Magic isn't real. It's just... science that we don't understand yet. You don't really believe in it?"
"I believe in what I see. I've been around a long time, captain, whatever you might think. I'm a lot older than I look, and I know enough not to dismiss magic out of hand. It pays not to dismiss anything that you don't understand."
"Yeah, but magic?"
"Got any better ideas?"
"Got any magic?"
"Well... no. Got any science?"
"I gotta gun?"
"That's not science, Jack. That's assault and battery." Methos climbed into the chest, stamping his feet around on the false floor. It didn't help. "Any other suggestions?"
"Extremely tempting." He clambered out again, and kicked the chest hard. It hurt, but he didn't let it show. "I refuse to be beaten by a box."
"You could try your sword?"
"I can't see anywhere to force the blade in. This thing is built too well." He sighed. "Years ago I had a pirate friend. He had a treasure chest with a false bottom. It opened by putting a second key into the lock."
"We broke the lock."
"Yes." Methos kicked disconsolately at what remained of that particular device. He didn't really think it likely that this chest operated in the same way as that long ago one, but it had at least been a theory. "So how would you do it, with your science? If you were making one of these?"
"Sonic frequency maybe." Jack shrugged, thinking back to the days when he still had such means at his disposal. "Fingerprints are too easily faked. A retinal scanner could work, but some races are too good at faking them, too. Plus you gotta worry about the likes of the Raxacorricofallapatorians, which pretty much rules out DNA as well. I guess that leaves sound. Not a voice print, though. That's as easily abused as a scan, or a DNA check."
"Sound." It was the only bit of the speech that Methos had understood; and he definitely wasn't going to ask for clarification. He certainly wasn't going to ask about Raxacorricofallapatorians. "Vibrations, you mean? That's not easy."
"For you, maybe. With a little technical wizardry it's as easy as flying." Jack shrugged. "But nobody in this age even has a computer, so I might as well be talking to the moon. I don't know, colonel. By the looks of things we have more thieving experience between us than most people could dream of. Right now, though, all I can suggest is brute force."
"Sometimes brute force is as subtle as you need to get." Methos nodded. "All right, Captain Harkness. Do your worst. Just get this thing open before we waste any more time on it."
"Yes sir." Jack performed a quick circuit of the chest, eyeing it much as a boxer might eye an unknown opponent. Oh for a laser pistol, or even a sonic one. Granted he shouldn't even consider using technology like that in front of a man like Colonel Winters, but somehow he didn't think that Colonel Winters would be all that fazed. It was a moot point, however, for he had no pistol save the one currently in his holster; a chunky black one, that he had bought in 1889 for the princely sum of one dollar and half a bottle of the sort of whisky that could kill at four hundred paces. One hand fell to it, but he wasn't really considering using it. Whatever might be beneath the false bottom of the chest would likely look a whole lot better without the addition of bullet holes.
"Are you going to circle it all day?" asked Methos. "It's not going to bite you."
"Just thinking." He tried a quick scan with his wrist computer, in the hope of finding a hidden mechanism, but got nothing bar a molecular breakdown of the wood. Not helpful. Well - the colonel had suggested that subtlety wasn't always necessary. Time, then, to forget about scanners, and just get the damn thing open. There was something rather satisfying in that.
With probably more enthusiasm than was strictly warranted, he headed back towards the door of the hold, where a pair of fire axes were fixed to the bulkhead. He hauled them both down, just on the off chance that the colonel might like to be helpful, and headed back to the chest. Methos eyed the axes rather doubtfully as he approached.
"Careful where you point those things," he muttered. Jack threw one to him, earning a look of alarm and a very rude word, neither one of which seemed to go with a claim of being hard to kill.
"Care to join me?" he asked. Methos raised an eyebrow. Having recovered his composure almost immediately, he was now sprawled on a simple packing crate, the very picture of idle royalty. Methos was rather proud of his ability to sprawl. It was a talent that he had discovered very early in life, and had done his best to nurture to the fullest ever since.
"You go ahead," he suggested, managing to sound quite magnanimous about it. "I wouldn't like to get in your way."
"Don't mention it." Somehow contriving to look even more relaxed than he had been already, Methos gestured grandly, as though to signal that the assault upon the chest should begin. Jack spun his axe in one hand, looking for a good place to start. Nowhere struck him as immediately obvious, so for want of anywhere better, he chose a corner and swung. The axe bit deep, and with a loud creak, the wood began to split.
"Nice shot," commented Methos. Jack acknowledged the compliment with a little bow.
"You want a go?"
"No, I don't think so. You're doing so well on your own."
"Aren't I." He swung again, this time splitting the wood further, causing more of it to come away. A third blow, and one side of the chest began to come loose. Jack abandoned the axe, instead taking hold of the wood in his hands, and pulling at it as hard as he could. He was strong, but the chest was still stronger; and instead of tearing it open, he merely caused the whole thing to slide a little way across the floor. Methos unfolded himself from his perch.
"Would you like a hand?"
"You get bored watching?"
"Something like that." He came over, and holding on tight to the chest, braced himself against the decking. "I'll hold it steady. You try tearing it open again."
"If you think you're strong enough." Jack once again gripped the loose wall. "Just be careful. The way that axe chewed up the wood, you'll tear your hands open if you hold it wrong."
"I'll be careful." Settling himself into position, Methos gave a nod. "Go for it."
"I'm on it." He pulled again, and this time, the chest began to give. Splinters caught at his fingers, but he ignored them. The sound of protesting wood was encouragement enough to keep on going. Beneath his hands, he felt real movement. Sweat stung his eyes. "This had better be worth it."
"It's got to be something pretty valuable in there. If it's not what we're looking for, I say we take whatever it is and go for the boats." Methos braced himself again, searching for a better foothold. "Now keep pulling."
"I am pulling!" He pulled with all the strength he had, feeling the blood beginning to run from his hands now. So much for his warning to Methos - he had completely failed to take heed of it himself. It seemed that his efforts were worth it, though, for with a final squeak of protest, the front of the chest came away in his hands. He slipped, then, half falling onto what remained.
"Ow." He had all but landed on Methos, who didn't sound particularly appreciative. Jack went to clap him on the shoulder, but thought the better of it. His right hand was a bloodied mess. Methos winced in sympathy.
"Bloody splinters get everywhere," he commented dryly.
"Tell me about it." Jack hauled out a handkerchief, and used it to wipe the blood away from his fingers. Methos did the same, the pair of them sending a scattering of wicked-looking shards of wood raining to the ground.
"You should clean that up properly," said Jack, with a nod at his companion's hand. Methos smirked.
"Oh, I shouldn't worry about me. Better follow your own advice, though."
"Yeah, sure." As the last splinter fell free, Jack flexed his injured hand, watching the last of the cuts close up. They left marks, but the blood was gone, and the worst of the pain with it. He would have preferred it to happen in private, away from the likelihood of discovery, but when he looked up to gauge the colonel's reaction, he saw that the other man was flexing a smooth and uninjured hand. His cuts had vanished more quickly and completely than Jack's own. "Huh?"
"Huh?" responded Methos, in similarly inarticulate disbelief. "How-?"
"Oh, really? Says the man who just did the same thing himself." Methos straightened up, moving away from the chest. "I think it's time you told me who you really are, Captain Harkness."
"Hey, I'm not the one with the secrets. I told you my real name. How about you return the compliment, 'colonel'?"
"I earned that rank before your great-grandparents ever drew breath. Don't go throwing it back at me now." In a flash Methos's sword was in his hands. Jack's expression showed his disdain, as he drew his gun almost as fast.
"Gun beats sword, colonel."
"You think? Guns don't frighten me, captain. They might sting a bit, but their bark is worse than their bite. Can you say the same of swords?"
"Try your luck." Jack's well-practised thumb drew back the hammer of his pistol, its aim never wavering for a moment. Nearby, wood creaked and cracked. Methos smiled.
"So we both think that we've got the upper hand? Interesting. Except I know that you're no Immortal. I've seen no tattoo on your wrist, so you're not one of those blasted interfering secret society types, either. What are you?"
"You know, that's the crazy thing. I don't have a clue. All I know is, I wake up one morning and nothing can kill me anymore. Not permanently, anyway. And if that's what happened to you, colonel, then you better give me some answers. I want to know what I am, and I'll do what I have to do to find out."
"A likely story. More parlour tricks, is that it? You've heard of my kind somehow, and you're trying to get the secret for yourself? You're not the first. Forget about it and walk away, while you still have your head."
"I'll blow your brains out before you take a step."
"Don't waste your bullets. It can't be easy to come by ammunition for that museum piece anymore."
"I'll worry about that." The creaking came again, insistent now, and louder than before. "And what the hell is that noise?"
"It's the chest." With Jack no longer seeming the most immediate threat, Methos whirled in mid-thought, to point his sword instead at the ruined box. Jack followed his lead, though his own aim switched constantly between the 'colonel' and the chest.
"There's something alive inside it?" Cautiously, slipping back into soldier mode, he took a step closer. He was tempted to use his scanner, but he didn't want to lower his gun in order to do so.
"Certainly sounds like it to me." Methos gestured at the box with his sword point. "Go and take a look."
"You're the one who claims he's invincible."
"So do you."
"Yes, but I also claim to outrank you, so jump to it."
"How about we both go?"
"Works for me." In point of fact it didn't, but Methos was quite prepared to agree to the deal. He just wasn't prepared to keep to his end of it. "After you."
"Somehow I knew you were going to say that."
"Bright boy. Don't worry, I've got your back."
"I'm worried." Jack took another step towards the chest. Something was clearly moving now, pushing aside the last of the torn frontispiece, unfolding itself from within the once secret space behind. A something wrapped in black cloth, that gradually uncurled and unfurled itself, rising up to reveal a great height, that seemed unlikely ever to have fitted within such a place. Shaking out a black cloak, flexing long, greyish fingers, and glaring all about with furious, fiery eyes, was a man. If he was worried either by the sword or the gun, he gave no sign of it. Indeed he seemed to have no care for either weapon. Jack was beginning to feel ever more baffled.
"So is this guy immortal too?" he asked, of nobody in particular. "What is it - an epidemic?"
"Epidemic? What? Why have you woken me?." Sharp, cold eyes fixed him suddenly in a wild and furious gaze. "Who are you people? And what the bloody hell have you done to my trunk?"
"Now that I wasn't expecting." Sword raised instinctively, Methos slid into a battle stance. "Were you expecting that?"
"Honestly? I was kinda hoping for jewels." Jack looked the new arrival up and down. "Jewels would have been prettier."
"You're meddling where you have no business to meddle." The new arrival looked around, his eyes narrowing at the sight of the small children lurking at the edges of the room. "And you have friends."
"Hiding from them, by any chance?" Jack smiled with sudden satisfaction. "Maybe he's better than jewels after all. What do you say, boys and girls? Is he your guy?"
"Oh, I have no doubt that it's me they're after." A particularly wan smile daubed itself for a moment across the pale face, before fading away. "Me and this." One long-fingered hand tapped at the pocket of his dusty, black suit. "You interfering idiots. You don't have a clue what's going on here."
"Wanna bet?" Jack tapped at the controls on his leather wristband. "Okay, what we got... left pocket. Small object, made of... something like tree bark. I think it's a jar." He frowned. "By the looks of it, a jar with some kind of power source. That mean anything to you guys?" This last was directed at the Elementals, who swooped forward all of a sudden, to lurch to a chattering halt just a short distance away. "I'll take that as a yes."
"Very clever." The taut smile flickered back across the drawn face, failing to mask the obvious confusion in the man's eyes. "Let me guess. They want their little trinket back, and you gentlemen have elected yourselves my jury. And my executioners? Or do you think that our little friends just want to play innocent games?"
"Hardly." Methos nodded in the general direction of the man's left pocket. "Give it back to them. It's all they want. Then the rest of us can get back to what we were doing before."
"I don't think so. The moment that jar ceases to be in my possession, they'll kill me. Why in heaven's name would I want that?" The chattering Elementals were coming closer, their tiny, immature faces wide-eyed and annoyed. "Don't be fooled by how they look. They'll tear me limb from limb if I hand over that jar."
"And they might just tear everybody else limb from limb if you don't." Jack levelled his gun, his thumb drawing back the heavy hammer. "Now some jar is hardly likely to make you bullet-proof. So give it up."
"Give it up? Or take it with me?" In a flash of sudden speed, he pulled the jar from his pocket, and held it up. It was small - hardly bigger than his hand - a roughly made piece, tangled with creeper. In his other hand, the head pressed against his thumbnail, was a match. "I may be a little stiff from being stuck in that box, but I can move fast if I have to."
"Ya think?" Jack took a step forward, his hands rock steady. "You're not faster than a bullet. And it doesn't have very far to go."
The man looked slightly disconcerted by that, but pressed on regardless. "A match can do a lot of damage. Do you really want to take the risk?"
Jack shrugged, unmoved by the less than convincing display of bravado. "Yeah."
"Er... Jack...?" Not quite as confident, Methos was looking about now with increasingly worried eyes. "You might want to ask your leprechaun friends what they think of the idea. They don't look too happy to me."
"Huh?" Jack glanced back, seeing the Elementals looming closer. To him they were not small, angelic children; they were monsters. Nonetheless, the expressions on their faces were easy to read. Methos was right - their concern was plain. "Oh, come on. Look, if you're that worried, I'll shoot him in the hand. The head?" Clearly neither suggestion was acceptable, and he looked away in disgust. "Okay, fine. We'll let him leave. That makes perfect sense."
"They won't risk the jar." There was a smirk in the other man's voice. "I am sorry, for what it's worth. I thought I was hidden from them. I thought they wouldn't know I was on board. But..." He shrugged. "I come first."
"The passengers on this ship come first." Jack took a step closer, and immediately the thumbnail clicked against the match head. A tiny flame flared into life. "That's cost you. A match can only last so long."
"Long enough to destroy this jar. They'll kill me then, I'm sure. But you think that they won't kill everybody else on board too? Maybe a few other people, for revenge? They might look sweet and innocent, but believe me, they're not."
"You don't say." Jack shot a look back at Methos for suggestions, but got nothing save a shrug. Methos didn't care about the fate of a little wooden jar, or of the man holding it. All he wanted was to be rid of any immediate threat of death.
"Let him go," he said in the end. Jack was aghast.
"We tried to help them. Now they're getting in our way. Forget it, this is their problem now."
"There, you see? Makes sense." Beginning to edge past them, flickering match still held close to the wooden jar, their new companion was clearly making a beeline for the door. The match was burning close to his fingers now, though. Another second more, and Jack was sure that it would be safe to make a move of his own. He smiled, as though he had not a care in the world - and at the same moment, saw the flare of flame on the matchstick flicker out. In an instant his gun leapt back up, aim always true. It might prove in the long run to be kinder to kill the man outright, but he didn't have the heart to make such a shot now. Just to make him drop the jar would have to be enough. Swallowing the pity that he couldn't help but feel, he pulled the trigger - only for the bullet to ricochet crazily away, causing Methos to duck down with a startled yelp.
"Bloody hell, Jack! Don't do that!"
"I... What the hell?"
"Ha! I told you." Smiling nervously, the man backed away a little more. "Nothing can happen to me while I have the jar. Nothing. You have to just let me go." Jack glared.
"Like hell I will." He started forward, gun never wavering from its aim; and with a confused babble of noise all around, suddenly a blinding green light was everywhere. A bustle of motion shook Jack this way and that, in a rush that made the world blur. Similarly disorientated, Methos all but lost his footing, and stumbled awkwardly towards their quarry. He made a hopeful grab for the jar, but the other man grabbed also at him, fingernails scratching deep through Methos's shirt.
"I won't let you have it." The man seemed almost in tears, trying to fight his way out of Methos's grip, even as Methos tried just as eagerly to free himself. "I won't let you."
"Fine. Then bloody let go of me!" One sharp fingernail snagged in his wrist, before suddenly one of his arms was free. The relief was short-lived. A second later, the snatching hands were pulling at his sword.
"Not that you don't." He tried to renew his grip, but the hustle and bustle of some dozen small children around him was just too much to fight against. The sword was torn from his grasp, and he felt himself staggering backwards, losing sight of his attacker for a moment as the bright green light abruptly died. He was out of the scrum, though, and that at least was good. No more tangled children, pushing at his legs, and yelling in childish panic. He might have been able to relax for a moment, if it hadn't been for the loss of his sword. Whatever else was going on, getting it back was imperative. Swearing under his breath, he struggled back into the fray, willing his eyes to allow him to see in the gloom. He didn't see the larger figure that rose out of the melee off to his right, but the hairs on the back of his neck warned him that something was amiss. He was starting to move even before a voice came suddenly to warn him of the danger that he was in.
"Look out!" Methos heard the familiar song of a speeding sword blade behind the shouted words. Felt the breeze ruffle his hair. He moved by instinct, intending to drop and roll, but the cold draught felt ominously close. How ironic to end it all now, at the blade of his own sword, wielded by a man who had no idea who he was. No, hang on, his mind told him indignantly; that wasn't ironic - it was bloody unfair.
"Down!" The voice was Jack's; the body that collided with his was warm and powerful. The deck smacked hard into his side, and his collarbone jarred painfully. Seconds later there was a thud, the crack of bone, the half-choked cry of a voice cut off. Blood sprayed him, warm and wet, and the body that had landed on top of him jerked once and was still. Still and heavy and wrong. He fought his way out from under it, through a trail of blood that got into his eyes and his mouth. His attacker, long cloak flapping, stolen sword still in his hand, was running from the hold. The Elementals chattered and whispered amongst themselves, but Jack did nothing at all. His headless body still lay across Methos's legs, the head itself resting a few feet away. Its face was turned away, the only thing that distinguished it as his being the rumpled brown hair. Methos groaned.
"You idiot." He struggled to pull his legs out from under the dead body, movements unnaturally hasty. Headless bodies always disturbed him, even though the usual kind had long since ceased to - and this one bothered him even more. It wasn't that he didn't appreciate not being dead - there was nothing that he would ever appreciate more. Such acts of self-sacrifice were alien to him, though; and besides, the infuriating American had been useful. Couldn't he have done the heroic thing a little more carefully? "Now what the bloody hell am I going to do?" He would have given the head a desultory kick, as futile punishment for its former inhabitant's recklessness, but as his foot moved sulkily forward, the head abruptly vanished. There was nothing left of it on the floor save a faint, drying stain of blood. Methos swung around, utterly stupefied, and saw the head now back upon the slumped shoulders of the dead man. There was a long, low groan.
"Jack?" His voice sounded small and dry. Nobody could survive being beheaded. Nobody. Could they? It was the ultimate fatal injury - the one that floored even the Immortals. The one thing left that truly made Methos's blood run cold. "Jack, what the hell...?" There was no immediate answer - just the jerk of a body restored to sensation - the tortured gasp of lungs struggling to return to life. Jack's eyelids flickered, but he didn't wake up. Around them, the Elementals crowded closer.
"Back off. We found you your trinket, didn't we?" Methos wanted to push them away, but didn't quite believe in the reality of their presence. He was quite sure that his hands would go through them. A small boy of about five years old leaned closer, and Methos saw bright, clear purple eyes, and tiny, sharp teeth. Not quite so human-looking after all, then. Not close to.
"Captain?" Thinking that the man might respond more readily to the rank than the name, Methos tried again to get through to him, this time with a note of authority in his voice. Jack moaned, and with what appeared to be a great effort, opened his eyes. He took a moment to focus on Methos, his eyes switching between the Immortal and the looming Elementals behind him. He tried to speak, but failed dismally, managing only a hoarse croak.
"Hang on a second." Methos went back over the scene of their earlier rummaging, searching through the jumble of opened boxes and scattered treasures. There had been quite a few bottles amongst the debris, ranging from priceless vintage wines to home-made vodka. He chose a bottle of nineteenth century brandy, and knocking the top off the bottle with the aid of a broken piece of a packing crate, poured a generous measure into a slightly dusty lead crystal tumbler. Jack managed a very weak smile, but Methos had to help him to drink. He could barely lift his head.
"You weren't kidding when you said that you were hard to kill." Sitting down beside the other man, and flapping his arms rather nervously in an attempt to make the ghostly children back off a little, Methos set the glass down. After a moment he picked it up again, and drained its remaining contents himself. Brandy wasn't really his thing, but sometimes anything was good. Jack's smile returned, a little stronger this time, and he coughed hoarsely.
"I... don't recommend it. Dying's not... not so bad, but... coming back to life... hurts like hell."
"I know the feeling."
"So you weren't kidding either?" There was a gleam of something that looked like hope in Harkness's clear blue eyes. Methos shook his head.
"I'm sorry, captain. I'm immortal, yes, but not like you. I..." His eyes drifted towards the ever-lurking eavesdroppers. "Well, it's different to you. We all look for answers, when we find out what we are, but I can't give any to you. I really am sorry."
"But you have died and come back to life?"
"I have, yes." He wasn't sure how much, if anything, to say. Secrets were secrets, and Methos had more than most. It didn't come naturally to tell too much of the truth. All the same, he had revealed some of it already, and a little more would hardly hurt. He shrugged. "I've died... once or twice, yes."
"And you're sure we're not the same?" The glimmer of longing in the other man's voice startled him. He had almost forgotten how it had felt, all those many, many years ago, to find that he couldn't die; to be desperate for answers and explanations. He had found them in the patient words of an already ancient man, and had passed them on to others more than once in the millennia since. This time he could say nothing. Jack's eyes looked so very, very sad.
"I'm sure. My kind always know each other, Jack. Always. You'd know it too if you were like me. It's like... like fire in your head. A weird kind of excitement, like..." He shrugged, finding an unexpected analogy that he was somehow sure that Harkness would appreciate. "Like sex in dangerous places."
"Oh." For a moment Jack's eyes seemed to lose some of their colour - then he struggled to sit up a little. He was clearly looking around the room. "So what happened to Chuckles?"
"He ran off." Methos scowled. "With my sword."
"Oh. We should get to him. He... he might get away." Jack struggled to rise, but couldn't even get as far as sitting up properly. It was clear that he was not going anywhere for some while.
"But this lot know where he is now. Can't they stop him?"
"I don't think so. Why get us involved if they could deal with it? Just let me get up."
"No. Look, they're supposed to be something special, with weird weather spells or whatever it is that they do - but all they've done so far is get in the way and whisper a lot. I can do that. It doesn't make me a super-powerful leprechaun demon. What's going on?"
"I don't know." Looking pale, Jack closed his eyes for a moment. "But it looks like they won't... risk the... the jar thingy. Could be he's got them over a barrel so long as he's got that." He groaned, making another attempt to get up. "I feel terrible."
"Being beheaded'll do that to you."
"Ya think?" He flopped back down onto the decking, and closed his eyes again. "If he leaves the ship, he'll be harder to find. He only needs to get... get beyond torch range... and we'll never find him in the dark."
"If it is still dark. Feels like most of a day has gone by at least." Methos climbed to his feet. "Look, I want my sword back. I like that sword. I don't give a fig for some mystic plant pot, but I'm not letting him get away with my sword. I need it."
"You're going after him?"
"Well you can't. You can't stand, let alone chase after someone. Who else is there?"
"Colonel... he's dangerous. Desperate."
"Yeah, I know. Lucky me." Methos was not happy. He had meant what he had said, though; he did want his sword, and it wasn't as though he couldn't fight when he needed to. He just didn't like it very much. Or at all, come to that. "Forget it. I'll be fine."
"If you just wait a few minutes..."
"Then I carry you up on deck, we stagger about the place, get in each other's way, and you fall overboard. Great plan, got any more?" Methos shook his head. "I can manage. I've been fighting over swords since long before you were born, captain."
"That's truer than you think. But all the same, I--"
"What happens if he gets away with that jar?"
"Rassilon knows. They forget us and go after him. Or more likely they get mad and blow up the ship. Bad tempered lot."
"That settles it then." Trying to convince himself that he was resolute, Methos straightened up. "I'm going after him. I don't want to be blown up. It bloody hurts, and it might just be fatal."
"Can be kinda fun, though." That at least drew a smile from the Immortal.
"You die often, Jack?"
"The universe seems to find it amusing. You?"
"It's something I generally try to avoid." There had been battles and accidents and murder attempts all over the world for five thousand years. Stabbings and drownings and gunfights and hangings, and all of them with him walking away in the end. A ship, though - there were many ways to destroy a ship. A sinking was no great hardship for him, but it might just as easily be burnt to a cinder, or blown to smithereens - and something like that, even Methos himself might not walk away from. He suspected very much, though, that Jack Harkness would. It was somewhat unnerving. "Look, this is getting us nowhere. Give me your gun."
"My..." Harkness frowned. "I don't have it. I dropped it somewhere."
"I don't know." He coughed harshly, but managed to make his way almost to a proper sitting position. In the appalling light there was little chance of spotting the weapon easily.
"Oh, brilliant. That's very helpful."
"I was being beheaded at the time. You try holding on to something while your head's being cut off."
"Oddly enough, not a problem many of us have to worry about." Methos fumbled around for the gun without success. "Can't you make that light any brighter?"
"You don't think I'd have done that already if I could?" Jack fiddled with his wristband, but without a hand to support himself, he could not maintain his upright position. "Damn it. Doesn't usually take me this long to recover."
"At a guess, losing your head is a bit more serious than most injuries." Abandoning his search for the elusive weapon, Methos grabbed a length of splintered wood instead, broken from one of the ransacked boxes. "Oh well. Wish me luck."
"You're really going."
"No." The captain looked crestfallen; even somewhat embarrassed. "Just be careful. I'd like to get the chance to buy you a drink sometime."
"I never say no to a beer." Methos smiled briefly, then with his makeshift weapon in one hand, and a sense of deep trepidation in his stomach, set off into the ship after his quarry. Behind him came the children, giggling and scampering in his wake, but he barely noticed them. Soon enough they were nothing but shadows in his mind. He had a sword to recover and his own life to save; an unknown threat to confront. And right now that was all that he was going to worry about.
He didn't run. Methos didn't like to run. It wasn't that it was undignified - it was just that it required effort. After five thousand years a man didn't necessarily acquire - or want - dignity; but sloth was a different matter. Sloth was good. Sloth was comfortable. It was also hugely preferable to hurrying to an early death.
With no certainty as to his quarry's location, Methos headed for the deck on pure instinct. It had been his own first thought to abandon ship upon discovering the dangers, and he was sure that another man so clearly devoted to self-preservation would do the same thing, even if it did mean leaving all his belongings behind him. So Methos went there now, one part of his own mind still lingering on the thought of escape. Why not? Harkness's band of supposedly fearsome leprechauns had managed to kill a roomful of lethargic dancers, yes, but since then they had done nothing save huddle in groups and look disturbingly endearing. Why should he fear them if he chose to take his chances in a lifeboat? Why should he assume that everybody else on the ship would be doomed if the thief was allowed to escape with the jar? Indeed, why should he care? His own life was important; most others were anything but. He was almost resolved to leave. Almost. Setting out without his sword, though - that was something that he was not prepared to do. Like it or not, there was going to have to be some kind of confrontation. So he hefted his chunk of wood in one hand, drew in a deep breath, and walked as boldly as he could out onto the deck. It was a hot, still night, but a chill fog was rolling in. The children playing their games again, no doubt.
"You followed me then?" He recognised the voice, but it took him a moment to track it down. The darkness and the fingers of mist were effective camouflage for a man swathed in so much black and grey. He shrugged.
"I had nothing better to do. You know what it's like on a long sea journey. Easy to get bored."
"You want the jar."
"Not really, no. Between you and me, I'm sick of small children. I don't much like the human kind, and weird floaty things I can definitely do without. I want my sword."
"I see." The man came closer, eyes narrowing. "But you've brought friends."
"Yes." He had forgotten about them, but he pretended that they were there by his design. Why tell the truth? It was rarely of any benefit. "But they're no worry to you. They're too afraid of damaging that bloody jar."
"It certainly looks that way, doesn't it. Compared to us they seem so special, but it's really just about playing with hot and cold. Heatwaves and blizzards. Atmospheric tricks, I suppose, and nothing more."
"Maybe. Harkness is the real expert. I don't know a thing about them."
"Harkness? Ah." The other man nodded. "Your friend? I'm sorry about him. I didn't actually intend to cut his head off."
"It happens. Don't worry about it." Methos nodded at the sword. "The blade could do with a clean, though. I prefer it not to get too sticky."
"You're a fencer?"
"And you're what? A born conversationalist? I'm not in the slightest bit interested in you, and I doubt you're any more interested in me. We didn't come here on a date."
"No. But talking is better than fighting, isn't it? It's more civilised. And I don't think you'll be able to attack me anyway, so why not talk?"
"I'm not feeling very chatty." He hefted the piece of wood, and thought about rushing the other man. He was quick. His opponent didn't look much like a fighter. All the same, there was the sword to consider; and the way that it jumped and shook in the inexperienced hand made him nervous. He took a step forward, but one step was all that he took.
"Swing that club, and it'll never hit me. It's all about the jar. Always. As long as I've got it, nothing will happen to me."
"You seem pretty sure of that."
"I walked a long way across Russia. A long way. It's pretty lawless in places, and people tried to attack me more than once." He twitched suddenly, as if disturbed by a memory. "None of them got very far. I'm invincible as long as I have it."
"In my experience there's very little that's truly invincible."
"You've never met me before. Me and my jar." The man offered him a smile, his pale face flushed. He looked sick and nervous, but his voice was strong, showing conviction. "It's a religious artefact, I think. These things that look like children - they had it, and I took it from them. I'm powerful now. I've worked it all out."
"Yes. It's like a sort of immortality, nearly. I suppose I'll get old eventually, probably. Until then, nothing can hurt me, though, can it."
"You look pretty jumpy for a bloke who thinks he can't be hurt."
"Yes, well... it's them, isn't it." The confidence was gone from his voice, now; his face losing its colour again. "They were waiting for me up here. Five of them. They followed me right across Russia, you know. I hid from them in the end. In that trunk. There was an Arab. I think he was an Arab. A man who knew all kinds of things. He did something to the trunk, and they couldn't see me while I was in it. Now they've found me again, though. Thanks to you."
"You're the one who stole their property." Methos was not especially good at sympathy, especially when it involved a man who was making his life difficult. "If you give it back, they'll leave you alone."
"If I give it back, they'll kill me!"
"And life's so great, is it? Your nerves are in pieces. You look like death warmed up, and you have a crowd of ghostly children following you every which way. If I'm understanding this right, then the only way you can be free of them is by hiding in a box; and by the looks of things, everywhere you go, everybody else ends up dead. As solutions go... well, it could use some work."
"It's better than being dead. I didn't know what would happen when I took this jar. I saw them. I could see that they were something supernatural, and I just wanted to learn more about them. It's not fair!"
"Mortality rarely is."
"Easy for you to say. You're not the one with these creatures following you everywhere. I hear their voices inside my head. The voices of little children, telling me how they're going to kill me. I hear them all the time now that the trunk is broken, just like I heard them all the way across Russia. I don't want to die, and certainly not like that. Help me."
"Help you? Those things might not have known that you were in that box, but they knew that you were on the ship. They've already killed a lot of people because of you, and I might just be next. That doesn't make me want to help you, it makes me want to stop you. Nothing personal."
"No, I don't suppose it is." The man seemed more grey now than ever, as though he might be about to faint at any moment. "My name is Andrew Hemingway. I have a wife, you know. A wife and three children, waiting for me in Manchester. Does that... I mean, does knowing that make you feel any different?"
"Not even slightly. You're putting this whole ship at risk. More importantly, you're putting me at risk. Just give it up. They'll send you mad in the end anyway, so why not just give them the bloody thing and end it now?"
"No." A flash of something like indignation washed the colour back into Hemingway's face, and seemed to restore some of his strength "I don't intend to die."
"You'd rather be chased from pillar to post by that lot, whispering in your ears and killing everybody you meet?"
"It's better than death. Better than my death."
"Maybe. But if the leprechaun honour guard isn't enough to drive you mad, there's a very persistent American downstairs who's not going to stop until he gets that jar away from you. And trust me, you're not going to get away from him in a hurry. These friends of yours keep killing people because of you, and he's really not happy about that."
"American? I cut his head off."
"Yes. Told you he was persistent." He shrugged. "But what can you do? Bloody Americans."
"I don't understand."
"Join the club." Was that bitterness in his tone? He had to conclude that it was. Here was he, nervous of a sword in the hand of a weak and pathetic mortal - and yet below decks was a loud-mouthed, brash Yank who could survive having his head cut off. It wasn't bloody fair. "Trust me, you don't want to fight a man who can't die. If nothing else, it's the definition of futile. Give me the sword."
"You can't kill me. Neither can he."
"You want to bet that we won't find a way eventually?" He took another step forward, trying to appear harmless even if he couldn't fake any real compassion. "Look, there'll be sailors on watch. Let's try to keep them out of this, yes? More dead bodies is the last thing we need. We can go to my cabin, have a drink, and talk things through properly. What do you say?"
"You're a little late to worry about the watch. The poor fools were dead before I got on deck. My fault, I suppose." He smiled a little unpleasantly. "Still feel like inviting me over for a drink?"
"Dead? Where? All I can see is you."
"I'd suggest you come closer, but I doubt you would. They're dead right enough, though. All covered with ice, and pale as ghosts. You'd think that the ice would have melted, but it hasn't."
"Oh, great. First the ballroom, now the deck." Methos was used to not caring about others, but even he, he found, was disturbed by the idea of everybody on the ship being killed in their turn. He thought of the young girls clustered around Harkness earlier, all of them now dead on the ballroom floor, and felt a sort of sadness deep inside. He didn't like it, but it was there. There was no denying it.
"They'll get you next." It wasn't satisfaction in Hemingway's voice, but it wasn't regret either.
"I'm sure they're planning on getting around to me, yes." He watched the sword shivering and shaking to-and-fro, and hoped that he wasn't being too obvious in his interest. He was thinking about openings, he realised; about chances to attack. All of that was useless now, though. He couldn't attack. Couldn't do a damned thing, at least that he could think of. He had to get a jar away from a man that he couldn't attack, and who had no intention of giving it up peacefully. His instincts told him to back away. Discretion was always the better part of valour. Hadn't somebody famous said that? He couldn't remember if it was Shakespeare or Austen. Or possibly Lord Peter Wimsey. Discretion, however, wasn't necessarily an option when both action and inaction were just as likely to get him killed.
"Suddenly you don't seem as sure of yourself." There was a faint note of mockery on Hemingway's face. It didn't suit him, somehow. For all his ruthless determination to survive, he didn't look like a man who was inclined to unpleasantness. Methos shrugged.
"Nothing I can do, is there. Seems pretty obvious. You're going to be piloting a ghost ship before much longer, but that's for your conscience to worry about. Could be I won't be here to see it."
"I doubt that. Now if you don't mind, I'd like to go and check on the rest of the passengers. See whether or not they're still alive. It might not help in the long run, but I'd like to know."
"I won't do anything to stop you. I don't want to hurt anybody."
"Though you're happy to see us all dead. I'm sure you see some logic in that, but I don't." He turned to go, but one eye remained on the sword. "You don't really need that, you know. Nobody can hurt you, so why do you need a weapon? It has... sentimental value. I'd like to have it back."
"I..." Hemingway looked down at the sword, and shrugged. "I suppose you're right. I quite like having it, but it's not really going to do me any good, is it. It's hardly likely to hurt them."
"Here then." He held it out, hand still shaking slightly. "Do you think... do you think that they'll really kill everybody onboard?"
"I'm sure of it. I doubt they're trying to play on your conscience, but I do think they've got some kind of plan. So yes, I think they'll kill everybody. Sooner or later."
"Don't waste your breath telling me that you're sorry." He closed the distance between them quickly, reaching out for the sword. "We both know that you're not. Any more than I'm sorry for you." His fingers closed around the sword. "Good luck. You'll probably need it just as much as I will."
"I know." The voice was bleak, but there was still determination in the eyes. Hemingway might regret the deaths of others, but he was certainly not prepared to prevent them. He let go of the sword however, and Methos felt the familiar security that possession of it always brought him. The relief was immense. Too immense. All of a sudden he felt the weapon in his hands begin to vibrate.
"Hey!" It might have been pointless to shout his indignation at an inanimate object, but for his own sword to turn against him was too much. It jerked in his grip like a living creature, his own right arm jerked along with it. He fought back, but he knew straight away that it was a losing battle. Try as he might, he could not let the weapon go.
"I'm sorry." Hemingway was moving backwards away from him, eyes wide with misery and fear. Methos tried to speak, but the sword was quicker than words. As he watched it raised itself upwards, his hand and arm dragged along with it, turning as it did in the air. He was too shocked to move, and he knew that it would have done little enough good anyway. The next clear thought that he had was one of pain, as the point of his own blade drove itself into his chest. His eyes began to roll themselves up into their sockets, registering one last image before they ceased to work; Hemingway, turning around and running away across the deck. In a moment he was gone, but Methos didn't live to see it. Dead already, he dropped in a heap to the deck.
He awoke for perhaps the third time, to find Harkness crouched over him, relief on his face at the sign of life. The American looked completely restored, and Methos envied him. If there was one thing that he didn't feel at all right now, it was lively.
"Don't just stare," he hissed, between furiously clenched teeth. "Pull it out. It's no fun lying here dying over and over."
"Right. Sure." Harkness looked down at the sword, and winced. "That's gonna hurt."
"It already bloody hurts! Get rid of it."
"Yes sir." The other man took a firm hold of the sword hilt, and with a strong, clean tug, pulled the weapon free. It caught on something, and grated on something else, neither of which Methos wanted to think about too clearly. He merely clenched his teeth all the harder, and fought back a sudden urge to scream. A moment later Jack was crouched beside him again, eyeing the gory hole beneath the shirt.
"You heal fast," he commented, rather like an interested scientist. Methos groaned.
"Not fast enough. Help me up."
"Yes sir." He was hauled to his feet by a strong arm, all the while feeling his innards knitting themselves back together. It was not the most pleasant of feelings, but altogether nicer than feeling them getting torn apart in the first place. Jack was looking around.
"Where'd he go?"
"Search me." An eyebrow quirked merrily, and he rolled his eyes. "That wasn't an invitation. Do you ever stop?"
"Not often. He say anything useful?"
"He told me his name. Hemingway. Said he was just trying to find out what these creatures are. So not very useful, no, unless you've a mind to be compassionate."
"I'm not sure there's room for compassion here. Anything else?"
"Other than how much he didn't want to die, no. You think he's left the ship?"
"Maybe." Jack left him for a moment, returning with a pair of ship's lanterns that had been hanging on the rail. He turned off the little blue light on his wristband, and handed a lantern to Methos. It was heavy and rusted, and smelt of oil. In its light they could see two dead crewmen, a crusting of ice covering them from head to toe. Jack's expression hardened.
"Somebody's gonna pay for this."
"As long as it's not me." Methos wiped his sword blade clean on one of the pair, conscious of Jack's disapproval. Well let him disapprove; Methos didn't much care. "Come on. Let's see if he's lowered one of the lifeboats. There should be three of them."
"No, professional survivor. Just because drowning won't really kill me, doesn't mean I want to let it try."
"I think so." They walked on along the deck, the lifeboats looming periodically out at them from the mist. There were three, all covered in tarpaulin, and none of them looking big enough or seaworthy enough to save very many people at all. Suddenly escaping by that method no longer seemed very inviting. Jack gave one of the boats a push, and it rocked unhealthily, showering rust from its moorings.
"You think he jumped?"
"I've never been a half-mad wannabe immortal." Jack peered over the rail to the inky black water beneath. Uninviting was not nearly enough of an adjective. "Hm... maybe not."
"Exactly. He's convinced he's untouchable at the moment, but I still don't think he'd want to swim for it. Maybe he went back down to the hold."
"That box isn't much use to him now. Besides, I'd have passed him on the way."
"Not necessarily. Or maybe he went to the wheelhouse? Taking the whole ship has to be better than taking a lifeboat - and it could be there's not too many people left to complain about a course change."
"Yeah. Just one more thing he's got to pay for."
Methos raised an eyebrow. "Quite a vindictive side you've got there, isn't it."
"Hey, I'm just trying to keep people alive."
"Everybody except Hemingway."
"Since when did you care? You're pretty clear on where you stand. You come first, and everybody else comes a distant second. I don't need a walking, talking conscience. I need to get this fixed."
"I know. I'm just saying, though - you're asking him to die. Letting go of life isn't always as easy as that."
"I don't get to find out. Maybe he should be grateful for the chance." Jack was looking away, but his voice was deep and moody. Methos didn't argue. Instead he looked away as well, staring out over towards the far rail, through swathes of drifting fog.
"You're right," he said eventually, when the silence had become a little awkward. "I don't care. I do want this over with, though. Maybe we need a new tack."
"If you've got any ideas, I'm happy to hear them."
"I'm not all that good with plans. One thing I do know, though - we're probably not the best people to be dealing with this. He's seen us both die tonight, so we're hardly going to have the moral high ground in his eyes, are we, if we're trying to persuade him to give up his life. We're immortal."
"I don't see anybody else up here."
"True. It's something to think about, though. Once you've been immortal a while, you get to forget what it is to be like them. The others. Their lives are so fragile, and they cling to them with everything they've got. I can't remember what it's like to be mortal, but I do know what it's like to want to avoid death. I'm not sure you do."
"Maybe you're right." The other man looked away again, seemingly preoccupied with his oil lamp. "I guess I do forget. Took me a long time to find something I was willing to die for - and dying for it left me like this. Or at least I think it did. Either way, I don't have the right to ask other people to follow suit. Maybe I can't ask him to die. Maybe you can, though."
"Me?! Hey this isn't my problem."
"You're stuck on this ship just like the rest of us, colonel. Look, you said I didn't know what it was like to be scared of dying, and you were right. But you know. You can talk to him."
"I got stabbed to death right in front of him! He's not going to listen to me. Look, I don't give a fig for your leprechauns, or for Hemingway, or for anybody else on this blasted boat. I care about me, and about staying alive. I haven't lived all these years to die now on a floating gin palace over some light-fingered souvenir hunter and a bunch of cosmic pixies. Read my lips, Jack. Not. My. Problem."
"Talking to him is hardly going to get you killed."
"It did last time! Next time might just be for keeps. I'm five thousand years old, Jack. I've got used to living. Find somebody else to put their neck on the block."
"Five..." Harkness shook his head slightly, clearly somewhat wrong-footed. "Five thousand years? That's... that's a hell of a long time, colonel."
"Yes, it is quite." He hadn't been intending to let that one slip, but his voice had taken the decision away from him. "But don't look at me like that, for heaven's sakes. Being old doesn't give you all the answers."
"Thousand years, yes. Can we get past that bit now? One day you might get the chance to find out for yourself just how little it really means."
"Or maybe I'll try to actually do something with that much time."
"Maybe you will." Methos turned and headed back towards the nearest of the lifeboats. "Good luck with that."
"Hey! Hang on." Chasing after him, the oil lamp in his hand jangling unmusically, Jack almost grabbed hold of him to spin him around, but stopped with his hand in mid-air. Methos turned around anyway, a little amused by this new uncertainty over how to treat him.
"What?" he asked, making an effort to put just a little superiority into his tone. He was rather good at that, when he put his mind to it; and after all, it wasn't often that he got to show off his great age. It was rather nice to play up to it for once. Harkness, somewhat uncharacteristically, looked unsure of himself.
"Where are you going?" he asked in the end. Methos shrugged.
"I've had it. What's the point? We've tried to fix this, but I don't see it ending. Those bodies over there are fresh, so people are still dying, and one of them could still be me. I've done what I set out to do. I've found their stolen treasure. Let them handle it now."
"You're leaving." The American looked oddly betrayed. Methos sighed.
"A lesson for you. If you're going to live even half as long as me, don't get involved. It makes things far easier. Get used to the fact that they're all going to die, and you're not. Look after yourself, find out what you can do with that long life of yours; but stop worrying about them."
"You want me to let them all die? What happens when this ship docks? Sooner or later, Hemingway is going to have to go ashore. It won't just be some people on a boat being killed then. It could be everybody in a whole town, or region - even a whole country. And sooner or later, that could be you at risk again."
"So stick him back in his magic box."
"You really think that's going to work a second time? I don't even know how it worked the first time, and there shouldn't be any science in this era that I don't understand."
"It's not science, Jack. It's magic."
"There's no such thing as magic. Just science I don't understand yet."
"Maybe." Methos shrugged. "Maybe not. In all my life, I haven't figured out magic yet. I've just learnt that you can never be sure it doesn't exist. Now if you don't mind, I plan on taking one of these boats and getting the hell out of here. They might not be very seaworthy, but they're better than sticking around and taking my chances here."
"Stay." It was almost, but not quite, a plea. "I know it's crazy, but you're talking about a religious relic. That's not the kind of thing that usually inspires logical thinking, even in creatures that have the same thought processes as us. It's not exactly straightforward."
"So I noticed. All these deaths aren't helping their case any; they're just making me feel nervous. For goodness sakes, what have we ever done to them?"
"He's human, we're human. Well - we sort of are. They think we are. We're all fair game if he's done them wrong. Just accept that."
"I make a point of never accepting anything that puts me at a disadvantage." Methos's eyes swept the gathering, the ever present honour guard of Elementals. There were four or five of them, all dressed in school uniform. Small boys in blazers and striped ties; tiny girls in pinafores and straw hats. They had all been wearing sailor suits earlier, so this was either a different shift, or a different style of hallucination. One small boy smiled at him, a tumble of blond hair falling over his eyes, and the tiniest hint of a forked tongue flickering momentarily between his ruby-red lips. "No. Sorry, but no. I'm out of here."
"I'm not a bloody colonel. I'm certainly not a hero. People have died here tonight, and more will probably be dead by morning. I don't plan on being one of them. It's all right for you, all big and strong and confident - but you can't die, Jack. It looks to me as though you're pretty angry about that. Are you? Do you want to die, is that it? Because I'm not going to do it for you."
"I'm sorry." The other man looked distinctly chastised, as though Methos had struck a nerve. "I'm not really all that strong or confident, you know. It's like waking up one morning and suddenly finding out you're a superhero. I'm just trying to feel my way all the time, and looking for answers, and--"
"And I don't have them. If you think I do just because I'm five thousand years old, then you really do have a lot to learn. One day you'll look back to how na´ve you used to be, and you'll laugh. Five thousand years is nothing, Jack. Nothing. They say that the world has been here for millions of years. Hundreds and hundreds of millions. I'm just a man."
"I guess you are." Harkness looked away, his blue eyes staring into greater distances than Methos could imagine. It took him a moment to return to the present, and when he did it was with a smile rather more taut than usual. "Good luck then. And look after yourself. I'd still like to buy you that drink some day."
"Strikes me that we've both got plenty of time for that." Methos flashed him a quick smile. "Goodbye. And good luck."
"Yeah." With barely so much as a nod of acknowledgement, the other man was gone. Left alone, Methos wrestled awkwardly with the ropes that - with luck - would launch his escape craft. They were heavy and recalcitrant, and he wished almost immediately for another pair of hands. Only after several long and painful minutes had gone by, and his palms had lost several layers of skin, did the boat hit the waves - rather more forcefully than he would have liked. Spray fountained up, and the slap of wood against water was uncomfortably loud. He half expected a crowd of passengers and crew to race up on deck and demand to know what was going on - but no such crowd appeared. One small boy watched him as he clambered over the side; an impeccably neat red-headed child, with a pair of small, grey-green horns sprouting through the top of his immaculately oiled hair. He smiled at Methos, in so childish and ingenuous a fashion that Methos almost smiled back. He checked himself just in time, and lowered himself over the rail. A brief moment, dangling uncertainly, and then his shoes hit the bottom of the boat with a dull thud. Everything rocked uncomfortably, and he sat down as quickly as he could. Confound it, he really didn't like small boats. Everything was so cramped, and somebody usually expected him to do the rowing. He certainly had to now, if he wanted to get anywhere. Boats, he mused, as he pushed away from the other craft and unshipped the oars, were supposed to be splendid things. They should be filled with all the necessary luxuries, and plenty of places to sprawl in grand inactivity. He had paid a lot of money for his ticket on the Czarina. And where had it got him? A brief moment's relaxation, followed by a lot of running about and being stabbed by madmen. The fact that it had been somebody else's money that he had spent on the ticket was only the mildest of consolations.
He considered singing as he began to row away. Singing was a nautical sort of thing, wasn't it? People often sang on boats. He whistled a little listlessly as he bent to the oars, but couldn't summon up any particular enthusiasm for the task. It didn't help that the only song he could think of on the spur of the moment was The Ship That Never Returned. Cursing himself for his warped imagination, he pulled harder at the oars, and felt the boat rock dangerously. Oh, great. Now he was going to wind up drowning himself through sheer enthusiasm. The boat rocked again. It couldn't help but come to his attention, though, that this time he hadn't been rowing. Whatever was making the boat rock, it was nothing to do with his over-zealous application of the oars. As if to prove his theory, something under the water slammed hard against the bottom of the boat. Something wide, green, and at least as long as the Czarina. As he looked, with increasing distress, over the side of the boat, the something was joined by a fellow.
"I knew there was a good reason I don't like boats." Very, very slowly, and very, very cautiously, he attempted to turn his craft around. That wasn't always very straightforward in a rowing boat. Row with one oar, a sailor would say - but one-handed, tremulous rowing, with two long, green somethings circling nearby, was hardly simple at the best of times. A green, scaly tail broke the surface, and slapped cold water at him. He suspected that it hadn't been a playful manoeuvre. His suspicions were reinforced moments later when a large set of teeth bit one of his oars in half. Suddenly, far from being a difficult manoeuvre, one-handed rowing appeared to be all that he could do. This was not good. A green tail splashed water at him again, and once more the boat rocked unpleasantly. Throwing caution to the wind, he grabbed his remaining oar in both hands, and did his best to use it as a paddle. The boat was a little wide, but it was better than nothing. As he paddled he yelled out for Jack, though his voice seemed to make his scaly companions ever more lively. He could only hope that Jack was able to hear him - and that he had the slightest idea of what to do. Methos certainly didn't. All he could think of right now was paddling, and fighting the urge to close his eyes as tight as they would go.
"Colonel? What the hell-?" Leaning over the railing, Jack was treated to the unexpected sight of something long and green breaching the surface, staring up at him from huge, red eyes. He blinked, and offered the gargantuan creature a cheerful grin. "Well hello there."
"Don't flirt with the bloody thing, Jack! It's trying to eat me!" Furiously paddling, Methos drew closer to the side of the bigger vessel. "Throw me a rope!"
"Yessir." The other man disappeared, reappearing again almost immediately. "Ready?"
"Of course I'm ready!" The boat rocked again, and it was all that he could do to avoid falling overboard. "Hurry up!"
"Catch." The end of a rope snaked past him, and he snatched at it, feeling himself dragged upwards almost immediately by a pair of reassuringly strong arms. Moments later the same arms were hauling him over the rail and depositing him upon the deck. He couldn't help noticing that, having done so, they were not making any attempt to let go.
"I'm not going to faint," he assured them. They seemed to take the hint, and withdrew. "But thanks. I... Just what the hell are those things?"
"They look like Vrotian sea slugs." Jack leaned over the rail again, but the creatures had gone. "Can't be, though."
"They didn't look much like slugs to me."
"True. First manned mission to Vrotia had some pretty lousy zoologists on staff, if you ask me. Not what I mean, though. They can't be Vrotian sea slugs because you people aren't supposed to discover them for another six hundred years. And who'd bother bringing a pair of them all this way, just to dump them in the North Sea and piss off sailors?"
"I don't have a clue what you're talking about." Methos collapsed onto the deck, his back to the rails. "And I don't care. I just want to get my breath back. I haven't rowed that hard since I last did a turn in a slave galley."
"That's no way to spend a weekend." Jack sat down next to him, a smile once again on his lips. "Knew a galley master once. Met him in Pompeii. He had the most evil temper I think I've ever encountered - and I've encountered a few. Mind you, he also had the most incredible pair of twin daughters..."
"You're worse than a teenage boy." Methos smiled faintly. "Although that does sound a little familiar, come to think of it. One wasn't a strawberry blonde, by any chance?"
"Her mother was from the north, or so she said." Jack grinned. "You too then, huh."
"You get around a bit in five thousand years."
"You get around a bit in a hundred and seventy odd, too."
"You do, undoubtedly." Methos sighed. "Getting back to the present, though... I just got herded back here, didn't I."
"Yeah. Looks like." Jack shrugged, not quite meeting his eyes. "Still. Nice to be wanted, huh."
"Did you know this would happen?"
"Me? I'm not exactly an expert on any of this. It's all pretty new to me too, you know."
"Maybe. Looks like you're the only man alive who might be anywhere near being an expert, though - except for the nutcase with the jam jar. That isn't exactly filling me with confidence."
"Me either. Have Pinky and Perky gone?"
"Pinky and...? Oh." Methos turned slightly, trying to look out between the rails. "I think so. Hallucination?"
"A pretty good one."
"Good enough to discourage me from trying that again, which I suppose was the idea." He groaned, resting his head in his hands for a moment. "You know, I bloody nearly didn't take this boat."
"Would it be rude to say that I'm glad you did?" Jack shrugged at the glare he got in reply. "Well look at it from my point of view. If you hadn't got on board, who'd I have ended up solving all this with? Very little chance it'd be some other cute five thousand year old immortal. And an English one at that. I can only speak Russian when I'm drunk."
"I am not 'cute'. I am never 'cute'."
"You are from where I'm sitting." Jack flashed across a grin that seemed to make his face positively glow - which felt extremely unfair to the demoralised and exhausted Methos. How the infuriating American found the energy, let alone the inclination, to flirt in this sort of situation was a mystery - but Methos couldn't deny that it was inspiring in a weird sort of way. Egos liked to be rubbed, it seemed, whatever the circumstances - and in truth, a good-looking man repeatedly suggesting naughtiness in the middle of a murder rampage was far from being the worst offer he had ever had. At least this time it wasn't the murderer himself making the advances. As far as he was aware. He rolled his eyes, though, hiding his amusement.
"Cut it out, Jack. We have things to do. Things to work out. Like why our miniature friends want us to get their jar back, but stop us when we try."
"Yeah." Jack was no longer looking at Methos, but instead was facing away across the deck. Methos didn't need to wonder what he was looking at, and didn't turn his head to find out. He could hear the scuff of tiny feet, and the strangely distant sound of a child's sing-song voice. It sounded taunting. Teasing. Jack's eyes had narrowed, and Methos wondered what he heard. He had said that he didn't see the creatures as children, but in something more akin to their true form. Presumably, then, he didn't hear the ringing taunts of a kindergarten playground.
"I think they're arguing," Jack commented suddenly, almost as though he had heard his companion's thoughts. Methos frowned.
"I thought they were impossible to understand?"
"The words, yeah. But they're baring their teeth, and that looks pretty argumentative to me. That jar of theirs must be a real sore point."
Methos shrugged. His shoulders felt stiff from the frantic rowing of earlier, and protested at the gesture. "You did say it was some kind of power source. Maybe they can't do anything without it. More fool them for not letting us take it by force."
"Precious to them, isn't it. I guess they don't want it damaged." He frowned and reached for his wristband, tapping away at the controls hidden within it. "It's a weird energy signature that it gives off, too. Reminds me of something. Not sure what."
"I know. Usually I like to give a better first impression, but this thing has got me beat. If it's a power source, and I'm pretty sure of that, why worry about that match back in the hold? Surely all that would have damaged was the jar itself."
"I guess they need the jar to keep the... the thingy in."
"Don't get too technical there, will you colonel." Jack's smile was bright and brief, and this time Methos couldn't help but return it. "But what kind of power source gets kept in a wooden jar?"
"A weird one." Methos didn't need to think too hard to decide that. Jack nodded slowly, turning back to look once again at his wristband.
"Very weird. You know, I think I see what's familiar about it. In some ways it's almost like there's something alive in there."
Methos stared at him, alarmed. "Could there be?"
"Yeah. No. I don't know. Maybe."
"Yeah." Jack toyed with the band's readout, adjusting and zeroing in. "It looks alive, sorta. Not in the usual sense, sure, but... in some kind of sense. Seems stronger than before, too. Different to when I first scanned it back in the hold.
"It's changing? I'm not sure I like the sound of that."
"No, me neither. It was weird before, but it's even more so now. Like it's growing."
"Great. So what the hell is it?"
"Who knows. These readings aren't like anything I've seen before. It's so alien it could almost be one of them." He glanced up. "Hell, maybe it is. It'd explain why they're so fond of it."
"One of them?"
"Sure. It'd explain... well, actually it wouldn't explain a whole lot, but bear with me. If there is one of them trapped in that jar--"
"Jack, it's a jam jar. You can't fit a four year old child into a jam jar. Not that I've tried."
"Don't be so literal. Don't be so... human." He was warming to his theme, clearly. "Different dimensions, remember. It's in there, but it's not in there. If it is in there, which, okay, it probably isn't. Something is, though."
"It's like talking to a labyrinth," muttered Methos, quite sure that his eyes had glazed over. "Okay. A power source. Could it have infected him somehow? Like radiation. I mean, whatever it is, presumably humans aren't supposed to wander around with it in their pockets."
"That's it! You're a genius!" Methos found himself crushed in an exuberant, spontaneous hug. "That's why they can't take it back." Harkness tapped urgently at his wristband again. "It is, it's bonding with him. Using his life force, blending with his energy signature. No wonder I was getting some weird readings. And no wonder he's not exactly behaving normally. I don't think they're protecting him - I think it's protecting itself."
"So how do we get it away from him, if it's turning into him?" Methos leaned back, beginning to feel extremely tired. Life's determination to be as complicated as possible for him never ceased to be infuriating.
"Well I can't think of everything myself." Jack scuffed at the ground with one foot, rather like a sulky schoolboy. "It'd be nice if they'd put in a few suggestions."
"I'm not sure I'd like to hear any suggestion that they made. Especially with the whole 'talking to them makes our brains explode' thing." Very slowly, and somewhat unwillingly, Methos clambered back to his feet. "Come on."
"Where we going?"
"To Hemingway. Maybe if we tell all this to him, he'll listen. That thing is going to kill him, isn't it."
"I can't say. I mean, probably, but this is a little outside my experience."
"Parasitic leprechaun batteries are probably outside everybody's experience." Methos leaned down, and grabbing one of Jack's arms, pointedly hauled him to his feet. "Come on, captain. Make yourself useful. You're the one with the magic armband."
"Some day, colonel, you and I need to have a serious talk about science." Jack glanced again at his wrist-strap, tapping something out on the blue-tinted keys. Methos saw the glow of something in response. "He's below decks. These readings are weird, but I can just about get a focus on them. I think he's heading--" He broke off. "You hear something?"
"Water. Engines. My heart doing double-time." It was his turn to frown. "Footsteps?"
"Looks like the Elementals haven't killed everybody, huh." Jack looked delighted at this revelation, but Methos wasn't nearly as ready to be cheerful. His right hand went instinctively to the hilt of his secreted sword - just as the door that led below decks banged open. Three men came through, followed a moment later by the captain. Jack grinned expansively, clearly relieved to see somebody else alive.
"Captain. Gentlemen." Starting forward with eyes a-glow, and a smile for everybody, Harkness couldn't have looked less threatening. Even so, two of the men with the captain drew their guns. Methos groaned. This wasn't good; he didn't need his age-old instincts to tell him that. Jack froze. "Is something wrong?"
"You tell me." The captain's strong French accent made a meal of the words, and his black eyes glistened with suspicion. "There's a room full of dead people downstairs, and here are you where you shouldn't be, with my men dead at your feet. Is there something wrong?"
"Dead at our feet is a slight exaggeration, captain." Methos tried a harmless smile, attempting to use his naturally innocent appearance in his favour. "I'm sorry about your men, but--"
"Forget it." The captain nodded at his confederates. "Bring them down below. We will find out what has happened here. And if it turns out that you two are murderers... well we have our own ways of dealing with such people at sea. Very effective ways, I assure you of that."
"Oh, great." Raising his hands in the air, Methos felt his heart sink in the opposite direction. "I was going to have an early night. Read for a bit in my cabin. But no, I had to go to that bloody ballroom, didn't I. This is all your fault, Harkness."
"It is?" Jack didn't seem particularly put out by the accusation; just mildly inquisitive. "How come?"
"I don't know yet." The glare that Methos shot him was pure murder. "But give me time. I'm sure I can come up with something."
They were locked into the brig; a somewhat grandiose name for what proved to be little more than a store cupboard. There was little enough room to move, so they sat side by side on a decidedly makeshift folding bench, that was held up by two very thin and rusty chains. Even breathing made the thing creak, and Methos was angry with it almost before the door had been locked by their guards. Jack glanced around at the small, wooden enclosure, and smiled his habitual broad smile.
"Well. This is... nice."
"Nice? In what way is it nice?" Methos tried to stretch, and wound up banging his head on the wall. "Ow."
"They let us keep the lanterns. And they didn't shoot us - or throw us overboard. They could have done."
"We'd be free if they had," snapped back Methos, in no mood to be cheered up by anyone. Jack shrugged.
"Maybe. But I don't wanna be eaten by a giant hallucinatory snake. I don't think I'd like it."
"Well when you put it that way..." The age-old Immortal shot a sideways look at his companion. "Although I'm guessing that if you got eaten it would be worse for the snake than for you. Even if the snake isn't real."
"You could be right. That could cause something one hell of a stomach ache." Jack winced. "Remind me not to try it."
"Locked up in here there's little enough chance of us trying anything." Jack's eyebrows rocketed up, and Methos had to smile, the direction of his companion's mind quite obvious even without the telltale flirtatious smirk. "On this bench? You've got to be kidding."
"You just need a little creative thinking, old man." Jack stood up, looking from one end of the room to the other. "But if you want out, fine. No keyhole or handle on this side, and it's a pretty tough-looking door..."
"No matter. I still have my sword, remember? But right now this is as good a chance as any to stop and think."
"About how to deal with this, or how to get off the boat?"
"About how to deal with this." Methos flashed him an eloquent glower. "There is no getting off the boat, is there. I think we've just proved that."
"Not necessarily, no." Leaning against the door, arms folded, Jack stared back at Methos with none of his usual flirtatiousness. "We proved that you can't leave, that's all. I don't know that there'd be many objections if I jumped over the side."
"Not comforting, Jack."
"It wasn't supposed to be. All I'm saying is, you're the only one who tried to leave. You know, from what you've said, I've worked out how to kill you - or how you think you can be killed, anyway. You tried to hedge around it, but it seemed pretty clear when you saw me recovering earlier. You think if I've worked it out, they haven't? They could have killed you, but they didn't. They just made sure you came back here. Or do you run into giant alien sea snakes often?"
"Can't say as I do, no. But that's crazy. I mean, what's so special about me?!" He frowned. "I can't believe I just said that. Everything is special about me. But that's beside the point. I'm just a bloke, for heavens sake. Just a... just a bloke."
"So you said before. But a five thousand year old bloke. Come on, colonel. Don't try to pretend that you're like the rest of us."
"I said I was special, didn't I? Special to me, anyway. I just don't like it when other people start noticing - especially creepy toddlers with fangs and homicidal tendencies. Take it from me, Jack, it's far better to just be ignored."
"I'll have to take your word for it. I'm a difficult guy to ignore." The younger man offered his companion what was supposed to be an encouraging smile. "Five thousand years old, colonel. That's got to have given you something. You can't really be just a guy."
"If a cluster of psychotic pixies has got me in mind for something, you're damn right I'm just a guy. I don't want them to want me, Jack. I want to be left alone. I want to be back in my cabin, reading my book and maybe having a night-cap. I certainly don't want this lot thinking I'm the way to fix all this."
"Even if you are?"
"Forget it. And if you say 'five thousand years old' again, I'll hit you."
"Fine." Jack folded his arms, looking decidedly mutinous. "But there's more to this. There has to be."
"There isn't." Methos was quite determined that this was going to be true. Jack shot him a faintly irritable glare.
"I'm trying to help."
"No, you're trying to make out that I'm the key to all this. I don't want to be! All I did was get spooked by some sort of sea snake. Doesn't have to be anything sinister."
"Yeah, but it's not just that, though, is it. I wasn't sure at first, but after this..."
"What?" Methos was determined to be grumpy now, and he snapped the word out as irritably as it would come. One of Jack's hands went up to rub thoughtfully at his neck.
"I thought I just got jostled or something, but now I think it was more than that. Colonel, they pushed me in front of you earlier. When Hemingway nearly took your head off."
"You didn't do that on purpose?" Methos was surprised. It had seemed such a grandiose gesture of heroism, and to his mind that suited Harkness down to the ground. Jack looked stunned.
"Are you kidding? I'm not a bloody idiot. Who wants to get their head cut off? I think they pushed me into the way, so you wouldn't get beheaded. Because that's the one way to kill you, isn't it."
"Maybe." He sounded shifty, and knew it. "You really think they saved my life? A moment ago they got my own sword to stab me to death. That's an interesting way to save somebody."
"You so sure that was them? Hemingway's carrying around some kind of power cell, remember. Something that's keeping him alive."
"Oh, sodding hell." Methos's head flopped back to bang painfully against the wall. "I got stabbed to death by an intelligent jam jar."
"I did, didn't I. I've fought a motley collection of enemies in the past, Jack, and I don't mind telling you I've had a few embarrassing defeats along the way. But a sapient kitchen utensil?"
Methos glared. "You're not helping."
"I wasn't trying to. Still, at least we're getting somewhere now." Jack looked quite pleased with the situation, which did nothing for Methos's mood. He elected to glare some more.
"We're locked in a brig. Hell, it's hardly grand enough even to be called that - I've been locked in wardrobes with more leg room. Either way, that's not getting somewhere, Jack. It's sitting still and getting pins and needles."
"Hey, you're the one who wanted to stay here for a bit and talk things through."
"Yes. But that was before we talked, and I decided that I didn't like what I was hearing." He sighed. "This always happens when I go to sea. It's all nice and peaceful for the first five minutes, and then the pirates attack. Or the Viking warriors. I don't like the sea very much."
"Everybody likes the sea." Jack smiled at him, clearly not in the least put off by the glare. "It's romantic. Still, if you're getting pins and needles, let's call it a day and bust out. Better to be out there doing something than in here getting into yet another argument."
"Maybe I like it in here. There's no leprechauns nearby. Anyway, we still don't have a clue what we're doing."
"You think that's going to change? We've been going over this all night. There are people dying, and all we seem to do is bicker with each other. I'm not gonna pretend I haven't been enjoying that, but I think it's time to do something a little more constructive."
"So we try to talk to Hemingway. Be a good boy, Andy. Give back the scary jam jar, and let the goblin children kill you. I still say that we're not the best people to be doing that."
"And we agreed that nobody else is likely to believe all of this. The twentieth century isn't exactly the Age of Believing."
"No, it's not. Maybe with a ship full of frozen corpses, though, somebody might be willing to ease up on the scepticism. Let's try talking to the captain. Provided he doesn't shoot us first, he might listen."
"Telling the captain was my plan right back at the beginning. You talked me out of it."
"True. But I didn't really understand what was going on then, and neither did you. And... well now we still don't, admittedly, which perhaps makes it time to think differently."
"Maybe." Jack looked away, across the tiny room and far into space. "But the captain didn't seem all that ready to listen when he was busy locking us up, did he."
"True, again. We didn't really try all that hard, though. With a bit of work, maybe he'd listen to..." He shrugged, rather vaguely. "To our tale of mass-murdering weather pixies. I admit it's not a plan without certain failings."
"Maybe we should get him drunk first." Dragging out a rather rumpled smile, Jack nodded. "Okay colonel. Say we do find the captain, and we give him the story. What do you expect him to do? He's just a guy in charge of a ship."
"I don't know. I really don't. For now, just get working on the story you're going to tell him." Methos shifted uncomfortably, wishing for a better seat. The movement was a good one for avoiding the full flare of his companion's indignation. "Well you're the one with the million dollar smile, captain. Which one of us would you believe?"
"You." Jack turned away, looking somewhat moody. "I know I'm usually lying."
"Ah. But then I know that I'm usually lying too." Methos drew his sword, experimentally checking the edge. "We have more in common than I thought."
"Is that a good thing?"
"Depends what you think of thieves and liars, probably." Methos shrugged. "I've always rather liked them. Honesty and integrity is so... tedious."
"I'm not gonna argue." Jack glanced back over his shoulder. "But yet again this isn't really helping. Okay, so we get out of here, and we go find the captain. Where'd you be if you were him?"
"Doesn't actually being a captain give you some kind of insight into that?"
"Maybe." Jack shrugged. "Well, from his point of view, his first duty is to his ship - and his crew, depending on his idea of honour. The wheelhouse then, I guess."
"Easily defended and easily secured. And no defence at all against our little friends." Methos sighed and rose to his feet. "The wheelhouse it is. Right now though, our first concern is that door."
"You said your sword would make pretty short work of it."
"And it will, provided there's no guards on the other side. Me hacking through the door might just alert their attention. We don't know what's out there, remember? Unless you have superhuman hearing abilities on top of every thing else?"
"Theoretically my hearing is better than yours, yeah. Sight, too. Benefits of 51st century living. I got better than just eyes and ears, though."
"That fancy watch of yours?"
"You're smart for a stone age primitive." Jack flipped open the cover of his wristband, and tapped at a few of the keys. "What? You don't like the stone age?"
"Happily I never saw it." Methos caught hold of the other man's arm, so that he could get a better look at the wristband this time. He saw a small screen, on which a thin column of numbers was scrolling beside what appeared to be a diagrammatic representation of the brig. "What on earth...?"
"It's a pretty basic scanner, really." Jack pointed at several digits and flickering readouts. "Air quality, gravity, time in GMT, local time. That one's a little unpredictable, though. Ever since a run in with a Judoon patrol on Minos V, I keep finding it's reverted to the local time for my old employers' HQ. And that won't be built for another two and a half thousand years. And it's on the other side of the galaxy. So knowing what time it is there isn't very helpful most of the time."
"Not really, no." The figures were not proving remotely useful to Methos, so he gestured instead at the door. "So what's on the other side?"
"A few Elementals. No human life signs." Jack was still fiddling with the wristband, although Methos had now moved over to the door. He glanced back from his brief perusal of its surface.
"I'm trying to get a better fix on Hemingway. See if I can figure out that weird energy signature. It might give us some clues about what's going on with him."
"Fascinating, I'm sure." Methos gestured at the door. "But forget it for now, unless you want to spend the rest of the day shut in here."
"You're the one with the sword, old man."
"And if I swing it with you there, it'll probably take various bits of your anatomy with it. Shift."
"Oh. Right." Jack snapped shut the cover of his wristband, and scooted out of the way. "Not a lot of room in here, huh. Kinda cosy."
"We're locked in a cell, and there's a swarm of demon leprechauns on the other side. And that's cosy?"
"It's not the circumstances, it's the company." Jack shrugged. "What can I say? I'm a romantic guy."
"People don't usually get romantic when I'm brandishing a sword."
"No?" Jack seemed genuinely puzzled. "You been keeping the wrong company, colonel."
"Idiot." Methos surprised himself by saying it with something approaching real affection. "Now watch yourself. There'll be splinters."
"Go for it." He moved aside as far as he was able, watching as Methos prepared for his first blow. The door was made from unsealed wooden planks - nothing especially sophisticated, though undoubtedly strong. One experienced blow from the well-tempered blade, however, and a large crack appeared.
"Did anybody hear that?" Methos paused for a second, trying to listen for the sounds of running feet. Jack shrugged.
"How should I know? Even my superpowers have their limits."
"Gotcha." He fiddled with his wristband again. "Nobody's coming. At least, I don't think so."
"You're a wonder at inspiring confidence, aren't you." Methos hauled off for another blow at the door, and this time was rewarded by a very satisfying split. Jack eyed it critically.
"Nice. You're not doing too badly for a spindly little guy. Want me to take over?"
"Nobody uses my sword but me." Methos shot him a murderous glare. "And I am not spindly. I think I preferred you when you were still being respectful."
"Hey, you're the guy who made a point of saying how you're nothing special. I'm just doing what I'm told."
"Very funny." He swung the sword a final time, and the door split almost in two. "There. Make yourself useful."
"Anything you say, boss." Kicking away the ugly shards of wood that were threatening violence, Jack clambered through the ruins of the door, and into the corridor beyond. Methos scrambled after, trying to avoid doing any more damage to his expensive suit.
"Coast clear?" he asked. There was no immediate answer. Only when he had finally extricated his left leg from the grip of a particularly devilish splinter did he see why. Jack was crouched beside a dead body, his expression decidedly unfriendly.
"It's the captain," he said, giving up his attempt to close the frozen eyelids. Methos, feeling more irritation at this latest interruption to their plans that he did sympathy for the dead man, affected an expression of vague sorrow for Harkness's benefit.
"Congratulations. You almost sound genuine." Jack straightened up, shooting a ferocious glare at the group of Elementals lurking at the end of the corridor. "That wasn't necessary."
"We can't talk to them, remember? Don't waste your breath." Checking his sword for damage to the blade, Methos gave it a conciliatory polish on his sleeve. Given that it had stabbed him earlier, apparently all on its own, he was half of the opinion that it deserved a few scratches. It, however, no doubt saw things differently. "Change of plan, then?"
"Gee, you think?" Still glaring towards the Elementals, Jack was clearly in no mood for a discussion. Methos nodded. Time, then, to take command - at least for the time being. He did a creditable job of straightening his shoulders, and making himself look approximately authoritative.
"Sir?" Reacting automatically to the note of command in the other man's voice, Jack had stiffened to attention immediately. Had he been in a better mood, Methos might have smiled.
"Come on," he said instead. "We'll have to try something ourselves."
"You have a plan?" asked Jack, apparently willing enough to follow if he had. Methos shrugged. The authoritative bearing had lasted, by his estimate, for a grand total of five seconds.
"Go after Hemingway. Look threatening. Or maybe catch him by surprise, I haven't decided yet."
"There's quite a bit of difference between the two," pointed out Harkness. Methos nodded.
"I'd noticed that too. Still, there's two of us. Maybe we can try one each."
"You're angry, Jack. I get that. But yelling at some creatures that don't speak your language isn't going to make you feel any better, is it. Now tell me where Hemingway is."
"The hold, I think. It's hard to get a proper fix on him with all this ghosting in the readings, but it looks like the hold. Maybe he's going to try to fix his magic box."
"Maybe. There's a lot of stuff down there." Methos nodded. "All right. The hold it is, then."
"You're looking pretty determined for a guy who's been trying to avoid confrontation all along."
"Yeah. Well sometimes we just have to do things, don't we. I'm a pragmatist, Jack. Or at least I am when it suits me." He smiled faintly. "And keep that brain of yours working while we walk. If you get any ideas at all, I want to hear them."
"Yes sir." With a last, sorry look at the dead captain, Jack turned and headed off down the corridor. Clearly he had no objection to going first, and Methos wasn't going to stand in his way. It was always nice to have somebody nearby who was prepared to take the lion's share of the risk. He didn't find such people very often - which, given his lifestyle, seemed positively unfair.
It was a largely uneventful trip to the hold. They found only one more dead body on the way - a passenger, slumped against the half-opened door to what was probably his cabin. One of his hands was frozen to the door handle, and his hair felt brittle to the touch. So cold was the chill in the air surrounding him that Methos had to fight not to shiver. He didn't want anybody - Harkness or Elemental - to think that he might be afraid. The fact that he was afraid was immaterial.
The hold stood open when they arrived, and there were icicles decorating the doorframe. A mist seemed to hang in the air, and Methos could feel the chill from several feet away. He grimaced.
"Have I said recently how much I hate this?"
"You mentioned it a couple times on the way here, yes." Striding on ahead, his dated tuxedo making him look like a character from the cover of a pulp novel, Jack offered him a slightly less cheerful version of his by now familiar grin. "Gotta admit they're good at atmosphere."
"Atmosphere I can do without." Turning his attention to stepping over patches of ice on the planking, Methos followed on. The going was treacherous, and the back of his neck prickled uncomfortably. Some of that at least was due to the cold and the mist, but a fair part of it was his instincts as well. There was an air of impending doom that made him wish once again to abandon ship. That brought his thoughts back to giant green sea snakes, which did nothing for his composure. "So do you have any ideas yet? I still rather like running away."
"I'm rapidly coming around to it myself." Jack rubbed wearily at his eyes. "Listen old man..."
"Save it. I know the story, Jack. You think they're saving me for something, and that I'm the key to all of this. Problem is, we can't talk to them and they can't talk to us, so if they do have a plan we're never going to know about it. If you ask me, there's been a lot of bad planning in this little adventure."
"You don't have any ideas?" Harkness seemed so certain that he must have thought of something that Methos almost felt bad for letting him down. Almost. He shook his head, exasperated.
"Why the bloody hell should I have any ideas? I'm just the poor sap caught up in the middle of all of this. You're the monster expert, captain. I'm a guy who wants to put his feet up with a good book."
"Yes, but they want you for something! They must do, and there has to be some reason why. You're the best judge of what you're capable of, colonel, 'cause all I'm seeing is cute and scrawny, and neither's reason enough for them to want to keep you around."
"I am not scrawny." Self-consciously he tried to puff out his chest a little. "Can you see Hemingway? He could be getting up to anything while we're stood here snapping at each other."
"I see you. You, ice, and half a dozen hairy naked things." Jack held up his battered ship's lantern, looking left and right. "Man. All the vodka on the ship couldn't make them any prettier."
"Don't knock it. The creepy little kids aren't exactly a barrelful of fun either."
"Maybe." Jack advanced slowly into the hold, conscious of how everything creaked. "Okay. Where'd you be if you were a man possessed by a plant pot?"
"He's half mad, trying to hide from the kids." Methos looked around, seeing little save shadows and boxes. "Anywhere where he thinks he can't be seen. He could be in one of these crates, or hiding behind just about anything."
"Great. And we stand out like bonfires on a clear night with these lanterns." Jack weighed his in one hand, clearly wondering about extinguishing it. He shrugged. "I don't feel much like getting rid of them, though. You?"
"There is no way I'm walking into a pitch black room when there's a psychopath hiding somewhere in it." Methos tightened his grip on his own lantern, as though concerned that somebody might try to take it away. "I want to see what's happening. Anyway, you're going first, so you're the one who needs to worry."
"Your generosity is incredible, you know that?" Jack started off again, past the debris of their earlier work in the hold. "Anyway, he could always creep up behind us. I can't go in back as well."
"Don't worry about the rear." There was a coolly determined look on Methos's face. "Nobody gets between me and the exit. Not ever."
"Somehow I can believe that." Jack glanced back, his teeth glinting in the lantern light, in what was obviously a flirtatious grin. Methos glared.
"Keep your mind on the job, captain."
"Always." Still edging forward, Jack lifted his arm to light as big an area as possible. He could see cobwebs and boxes, and very little else. "Maybe we should just call him."
"Thanks, but I prefer to sneak up on people." Warning an enemy of their approach sounded far too much like fair play to Methos's way of thinking. "No sense in losing the advantage."
"What advantage?!" Jack shrugged. "But you're right. Okay, so we don't call him. If he's not blind he's going to see us coming anyway though."
"Could we please have just a little optimism?" Speaking rather more loudly than he had intended, Methos winced at the sound of his own voice, and immediately lowered it. "Suicide missions make me nervous, so let's plan on winning, all right?"
"You wanna try shouting a little louder? There's probably a few people onboard who didn't quite get that." Jack quickened his pace for a moment, as though expecting a slap. "Relax, colonel. The guy's half-mad, remember."
"He's also half... well, half something. And we don't know what that thing is, so don't get complacent." Methos glanced behind himself, almost sure that he had heard a footstep somewhere nearby. "Damn. I'm getting paranoid. Let's just get this done."
"Okay by me." Jack increased his speed a little more, moving now about as fast as he could without getting careless. He could still see little save cobwebs. Only after several more minutes of weaving about between packing crates did he see something up ahead. It seemed to be a faint, green glow.
"What's that?" asked Methos, almost bumping into him when Jack slowed to a halt. Harkness shot him a rather impatient glare.
"How the hell do I know? Something shiny."
"I don't like shiny. Shiny's ominous."
"Ominous?" He could almost feel the heat of the glare coming from the man behind him, but it was too hard not to tease. "Nobody says 'ominous'. Are you kidding?!"
"Just go and find out what the shiny thing is, Jack. I have my suspicions, and I'm not sure I want to know if I'm right."
"I think we both already know what it is." Jack edged forward slightly, peering carefully around the edge of a particularly large crate. "Okay... That's not something you see every day."
"If it's a bloke turning into a jam jar, I definitely don't want to know." Despite his words, Methos was close behind him, as though he were trying to see for himself. Jack shook his head.
"Not quite. Not far off, though. Whatever's in that thing is bleeding out all over him. I guess he's absorbing it." He shrugged. "Oh well. At least we don't have to worry about it being dark anymore. No way he's sneaking up on us."
"Being glad that your enemy glows in the dark might just be the definition of looking on the bright side." Methos winced. "That wasn't supposed to be a pun."
"I gathered that." Jack turned around, leaning against the crate that was the last barrier between themselves and their quarry. "Any ideas?"
"Oddly enough, not a one. This is just a little beyond me." Methos sighed. "Running away is still out of the question, right?"
"Hungry alien snakes not deterrent enough for you?"
"Hungry alien snakes that might not actually exist." All the same, it wasn't something that he particularly wanted to face again, and his shoulders slumped. "Okay, so we're trapped. Fine. I can do trapped."
"Not trapped is better."
"Jack, do you mind? I'm trying to be positive. We've got a good sword, two good lanterns, and he might not know that we're here yet. That's not bad for the pros list. Cons... Actually, I'm not sure I want to list those. It's too depressing."
"So much for being positive. Anyway, we saw his light, so chances are he can see ours. I don't think we can count on the element of surprise." Jack was fiddling with his wristband, checking readings and trying to formulate theories of what they were up against. "How good are you with that sword of yours, colonel?"
"Very good, when I have to be. I've never fought anything like that before, though. What are you getting at?"
Jack shrugged, indicating that his plan was not exactly brilliant, but was the best that he could do under the circumstances. "I was thinking I'd distract him, and then you could... well, I hadn't really got much further than that. I thought you could do something..."
"Pretty much, yeah." As a plan it was missing a lot. "Sneak up on him. You're good at that, right?"
"I sneak better in the opposite direction, but yes, I'm good at it. I don't know about this, though. He's not going to like it."
"One thing you left off your list of things on our side, colonel. We're immortal. That's a pretty big item in our favour. Now are you ready?"
"One of us keeps forgetting that he's rather more immortal than the other. And no, I'm not ready. Of course I'm not ready." He sighed. "This really is the best plan we're going to come up with, isn't it."
"We've had all night. Have you got anything better?"
"No." It was annoying, but undeniably true. The only plan he had come up with all night had been one of escape, and that had ended in an avowed failure. He nodded. "Okay. I'm... as ready as I'm ever likely to be."
"Then we're good to go." Jack flashed him a grin that would have been quite dazzling under any other circumstances. The sort of grin that any other person would have returned, quite heartened by the experience. Methos merely glared, and drew his sword. The blade reflected an odd light coming from Hemingway's glowing form nearby, casting a sickly shine in return on both their faces. Patterns of shadow and green light made Jack look somehow unearthly, though the glow in his eyes didn't change. He was still smiling, Methos realised. The man was quite likely either a madman or a fool. When he straightened up a moment later, to step brazenly out from their scant cover, the old man decided that he was probably both.
"Hey." It was such a cheery greeting that it might have been made to a close friend on a sunny promenade, a million miles from this dank hole beneath a ghost ship. Methos carefully drew his sword, and tried to find a good route from which to sneak up on his enemy. Nearby he could hear Harkness chatting all the while. "It's Hemingway, right? We've never been properly introduced. Name's Harkness. Captain Jack Harkness. Pleased to meet you." And he probably was, too, thought Methos, at present trying to squeeze himself between two very large wooden crates that seemed quite determined to ruin what was left of his suit. "Nice look you got going there, by the way. Always did like phosphorescence. Dated a guy once in the Orhidian system. Eyes like dinner plates, glowed like fire. No problem finding him after he turned the lights out. Well, until he closed his eyes. Course, I was otherwise occupied by then." There was a brief pause in the barrage of words, and Methos could well imagine the jaw-splitting grin that was undoubtedly being flashed about in the lull. "The colour kinda suits you too. Not everybody can pull off that shade of green."
"What do you want?" Hemingway's voice sounded almost the same as it had when Methos had spoken to him on the deck, though perhaps a little more hoarse. Jack's feet scratched against the deck as he moved again, doing his best to draw the other man's attention away from the crates providing Methos with cover.
"Me? I just want to talk. See if you're okay. We got off on the wrong foot earlier, and I'm sorry about that. Circumstances, you know? I wasn't very polite." He shrugged. "Still, you did cut my head off, so I guess that makes us even. Kind of."
"What do you want?" There was a touch more force in the question this time. Hemingway sounded impatient, unmoved by the deluge of friendly chatter. Methos didn't blame him. Harkness was a hard man to get used to, and presumably Hemingway was hardly in the best frame of mind for conversation right now. It was hard to imagine just what might be going through his mind, all things considered. Methos had to conclude that it was something he was better off knowing nothing about.
"Hey, can't a guy come over for a friendly chat? There's not many people left alive on board this boat, you know. I was getting lonely. The Elementals aren't exactly chatty, are they."
"They're evil." The recoil inspired by the mention of the creatures was clear even to Methos, scrabbling about nearby, and unable to see the man at all. Hemingway practically hissed in displeasure, and it seemed for a moment as though the green glow deepened. Jack seemed encouraged by this, though Methos himself felt rather the opposite.
"They're not the ones doing this to you. I know they're easy to blame, but you picked up that trinket. They didn't give it to you."
"They tried to get it back, though. They killed everybody I met. I think they sent me mad."
"Yeah. Actually, I think the living flower vase might have had something to do with that." Jack sounded a little further away now, as though he were still trying to lead the other man in some tactical direction of his own choosing. Methos stole a look over the packing crate he was hiding behind. A four year old boy with yellow eyes stared back at him, and he jumped violently.
"It's not sending me mad. It's helping me. I'm helping it." Clearly oblivious to Methos's presence, despite what the old man was quite certain had been a gasp audible up on the deck, Hemingway babbled on. He sounded tired, and rather pathetic, but clearly unconcerned by Jack's presence. He didn't seem to think that there was likely to be any threat. Jack was obviously aware of this, his manner easy, his tone increasingly flirtatious. Recovering his composure, Methos peered once again over the crate, and this time had an unobstructed view of Harkness. He was some distance away now, and had manoeuvred himself so that Hemingway's back was to the Immortal. Methos glanced down at his sword, and wondered what the hell to do next. The small, yellow eyed boy who had so startled him before hissed something unintelligible, and eyed the sword with distaste.
"It's not helping you, Hemingway. Say, do you have a first name?" Studiously avoiding looking in Methos' direction, Jack was still cheerfully doing his distracting. "Look at yourself. I mean, sure I said I liked the phosphorescent look, but it's not exactly normal for Earth in this era, is it. And between you and me, you're starting to get a little translucent. That's not usually a good thing in humans, even to an open-minded guy like me."
"I'm stronger than I used to be." As Methos slipped quietly out of his hiding place, still at a loss as to what to do, Hemingway halved the distance between himself and Jack. "I see things more clearly."
"Which is nice. I'm guessing." Jack's confidence seemed to be slipping, which Methos was almost sure was his cue to do something. He still couldn't think of what exactly to do, besides run the mortal through, or attempt to behead him. Whatever he did he had to catch the man by surprise, or he would likely find himself facing his own sword again, as had happened on the deck. Either that or the wretched demonic children would choose to get involved, and prevent him from doing anything decisive. He hefted his sword, and wished that he could believe he was going to get away with this. With Hemingway advancing on Jack, it looked as though there was no time to consider the options properly, so with a roll of his eyes heavenward, he broke into a run. Almost immediately, with an unmistakable deepening of his inhuman green glow, Hemingway spun around. Methos froze, unnerved by his speed; by the now brilliant green of his irises; by the glowing of his exposed green teeth. For some reason, perhaps inspired by Harkness's persistent chumminess, the old man summoned a sickly grin.
"Hi." It wasn't the best attempt at conversation that he had ever made - but then, if he had ever been confronted by an enraged, luminous man before, he didn't remember it. He glanced rather self-consciously at his sword, and felt almost absurd. "Nice to see you again."
"Oh, great work, colonel." With a roll of the eyes, Jack launched himself at their target, catching him in an apparently enthusiastic bear hug that Hemingway shrugged off with ease. Methos, sword by now lowered, raised an eyebrow.
"Oh, great work, captain."
"At least I'm trying." Having been thrown to the ground in an ungainly heap, without being at all sure how, Jack clambered back to his feet. "You know, when I planned it, I didn't see it going quite like this."
"I don't remember a plan." Methos took a step backward, not liking the manner in which Hemingway was eyeing his sword. "You have a level of blind faith all your own."
"You will not take the jar." No longer sounding quite like himself, Hemingway turned his head left and right, to keep them both in sight. Methos nodded amiably enough.
"Fine by me. We'll be leaving now, then."
"Or not." Harkness took a step towards Hemingway, hands held out from his sides. As far as he knew, there were less than half a dozen worlds in the universe that didn't recognise that as a gesture of some kind of peace. "Look, if you want to turn into some living embodiment of whatever powers that thing, fine. It's your body, and Rassilon knows I'm an open-minded kinda guy. But I have lives to save. We've got to at least find a compromise."
"A compromise?" For a second Hemingway's expression was one of a completely human incredulity - then he gave a short, bitter laugh. His voice, when he spoke again, was almost as normal.
"You think it's just an inanimate object. I've listened to you. The pair of you, on and off all night. Your jokes, your levity. Leprechauns, jam jars, cooking utensils. You act as though it's a joke, or some kind of massive inconvenience. It's a lifeform. They're keeping it a prisoner, because it plays a part in their rituals, and it's been screaming for its freedom for longer than this world has existed. I didn't hear it either at first. Not even when I stole it. Not until later, when I thought the Elementals had driven me mad. I hear it properly now. It doesn't want to go back to them. It wants to be free."
"It's killing you," Jack told him. Hemingway shook his head.
"No. No, it wouldn't. If it did that then it would be dead too."
"Maybe it doesn't care." There was a hot gleam in Jack's eyes, that spoke of layers of subtext. "Death is a kind of freedom not everyone can understand."
"Maybe." There was a helpless shrug in the words. "But I don't think so. It's in me. It's part of me. We need each other. And it doesn't want to go back. It won't go back."
"I'm not sure it has a choice." Sword still harmlessly at his side, Methos sat down on the nearest packing crate - his own attempt at looking unthreatening. "People are dying. They're going to carry on dying."
"It doesn't care." Hemingway frowned, as though listening to voices in his head. Possibly that was exactly what he was doing. "I don't think people mean anything much to it. Why would they?"
"They mean something to me." Jack had dropped his hands back to his sides, no longer concerned with looking quite so peaceful. "I'd have thought your life meant something to you too."
"It does. Of course it does." Hemingway's voice quavered. "I saw the jar. I saw it and I had to have it. And I took it, and it's been burning my mind ever since. I don't want to die. I don't want it to kill me. There's nothing I can do to stop it, though, and I couldn't betray it even if I wanted to. I can see it like a web glowing inside me, and there's no way to fight it." He shuddered. "Leave. Both of you. It's not going back to the Elementals, and I'm not handing myself over to them either. They'll tear it out of my head, and they'll tear the rest of me to pieces to be sure that they've got it all."
"Beats being poisoned to death by that thing." Jack took a step forward, but Hemingway rounded on him with something akin to a hiss.
"If there's anybody else left alive on board this boat, you're killing them." Jack sounded angry, which Methos wasn't at all sure was a sensible approach. They still had no idea what they were dealing with.
"I don't care about other people on the ship. I care about me, and that means I care about this thing as well. We're the same now. I..." Hemingway looked suddenly uncertain. "It wouldn't kill me. It wouldn't kill itself. And we're not going back. You can't make us."
"Don't be so sure about that." The set of Jack's jaw was firm - making it, thought Methos, an invitingly punchable target. The man clearly didn't know when to shut the hell up. "I don't know how else to stop these things. For all I know, they'll carry on killing until they get that thing back. And I can't let that happen."
"Who made you the protector of the world?" There was a jeering note in Hemingway's voice. "And who says they'll carry on killing? If you're right, and it's dying, they'll just go away. Can't get it back if it's dead."
"I didn't say it was dying, I said you were. I don't know what happens to it then - not without knowing what the hell 'it' is. And don't try to give them logical motives. They're nothing like you." His eyes darted briefly over to Methos, searching perhaps for support, or perhaps just for confirmation that he was doing the right thing. Methos, who didn't have a clue one way or the other, elected to look baffled and helpless. It didn't require much acting.
"Stuck, then, aren't we." Green irises glowing more strongly now, Hemingway gave a strangely lop-sided grin. His green tongue looked translucent and weird. "It's not going back. You won't leave it alone, but it'll fight. You've both felt it doing that in the past. I told you that something was protecting me, though I didn't know what it was at the time. You both felt it, didn't you."
"We did." Methos affected boredom, secure in the fact that he was far out of reach, and in the certainty that Jack was more deserving of a backlash anyway. "It killed us both - and yet..."
"You interest it," admitted Hemingway. "But next time it will correct its mistake. Let it go free. You know it's the right thing to do. Why should it suffer?"
"It's not my responsibility." Jack's jaw was set like iron, even if his eyes did suggest at slightly less certainty. "Humankind is my responsibility. I have to put them first."
"And it's not my problem," added Methos, with a shrug that suggested he was not remotely apologetic. "I just want to stay alive, and get off this damn boat."
"I just want to stay alive too," Hemingway reminded him. Again Methos shrugged.
"Can't take the heat, don't steal the weird alien artefact." He smiled briefly, his murky green eyes actually looking reasonably sympathetic. "Close your eyes. Just don't look when they come for you."
"Maybe you need to learn to follow your own advice." The green teeth glowed dully, in an open-mouthed grin that showed no humour. "Close your eyes."
"No thanks." Instinct made Methos rise to his feet; the better to leap for cover. "Listen, Hemingway--"
"No. Enough listening. I don't want to die. It doesn't want to go back. What more needs to be said? We can help each other, it and me. All you can do is cause trouble." He drew in a deep breath, and it seemed for a moment that the green light filling him had faded almost to nothing - then suddenly it was brighter again, pulsing in time with some secret rhythm. Bright and dim, bright and dim - some alien heartbeat perhaps, that flooded him with light even brighter than before; brighter and brighter until even his fingernails glowed.
"Uh oh." Jack wavered uncertainly, not sure whether to retreat or brave it out. "You could set fire to the ship, you know. That's no way to keep yourself alive."
"I trust it." Hemingway shuddered within his cocoon of light. "Do you?"
"Jack. Discretion, yeah?" Methos was edging away behind some stout-looking leather cases, though he didn't have a great deal of faith in their ability to protect him if things got nasty.
"Yeah." Jack Harkness was not always the best person to judge when a situation called for discretion, but in this case even he could see that his usual bull-headed approach was not necessarily going to help. He did try out one last smile, though - one final attempt to defuse the situation with the legendary Harkness charm. It had worked on soldiers and assassins; vengeful Royals; enraged husbands, jealous wives and more than a few jilted lovers. Hemingway, however, or the being with him, was not so easily calmed. He shuddered again, and this time it was not green light that flooded his eyes - it was yellow. For one brief second that yellow light was all that Jack could see; was all that Methos could see, even lurking as he was behind the piles of luggage - then with a roar like floodwater, and a smell oddly like sandalwood, all of the light was gone. It was only several moments later that Methos realised he was now flat on his back on the floor, and several moments after that that he felt a sticky trail of blood running down the side of his head. He groaned. Very much he wanted to get up - to get the hell out of the hold, and even try his luck once again with an attempt at going over the side. He couldn't even move. His head was beginning to throb, and he could feel the altogether unpleasant sensation of broken bones knitting themselves back together. Everything was completely black, and he had to concentrate hard to work out whether or not that was because his eyes were closed. He got his answer only when his lantern, momentarily extinguished by whatever force, coughed itself back into life. It struck him that this was an act of considerable treachery on its part, but he didn't have the energy to put it out again. He just lay where he was and groaned, whilst telling himself off for doing so.
It was quite some time later before he decided that Hemingway wasn't looking for him, and wasn't intending to finish what he had started. The trickle of blood had stopped flowing, though when he tried to move his head, he found it glued unpleasantly down in a sticky puddle. His hair protested when he tried to move, and he winced at the effort. Everything ached, though he knew that his injuries were healed. They always were, once this amount of time had passed. Only his head had any real excuse for throbbing.
"Jack?" he asked the question to a silent room. There was no other flicker of light; no answering lantern; but then he had no idea where he was, or how many obstacles might lie between him and his confederate. Retrieving his own lantern, he held it up, and began to clamber his way over the fallen boxes that surrounded him. By the look of things he had been blasted some distance, through as many cases as he had gone over. That explained the broken bones at least.
"Dead ahead." The voice came from the other side of what appeared to be a pile of oak chests. Methos skirted them carefully, alert all the while for a glow of green light, or for the sound of a footstep. There was nothing. Hemingway, it seemed, was either laying low or had disappeared.
"You seen my sword, Jack? I think I must have dropped it when that whatever it was hit us." Clambering over a smashed pile of crockery, Methos found his companion at last. Harkness was sitting on an antique chair, pulling splinters of wood out of his clothing. He looked dishevelled enough to make Methos himself feel a little better, though he didn't seem quite as daubed in blood. As ever he offered a cheery grin.
"Don't give me any of that friendly stuff." Kicking aside shards of priceless china, Methos sat down on the nearest available object that looked as though it might bear his weight. It turned out to be a gigantic footstool, fashioned out of rich, dark wood and scarlet leather. "I feel as though I've thrown myself off the top of Mount Vesuvius."
"Into the volcano or out of it?" Jack stretched out his legs, and winced at the effort. "I think I went into it. I could have sworn I caught fire."
"Green fire. Or maybe yellow." Methos rubbed his eyes, flashes of something in that line coursing suddenly through his memory. Flashes and bursts of unexpected coherence, mixed in with a lot that didn't make any sense at all. "I don't usually hurt for this long."
"You'll be okay." Jack stood up, retrieving his lantern and giving it a shake. It burst back into life, but failed again almost immediately, electing in the end to remain at half mast. "You lost your sword, you said?"
"I was holding it. Then I wasn't." He couldn't even remember when he had noticed that it was missing. Jack nodded, and gestured at something off to his right. Methos turned to look. A small girl of about three years old sat on a battered leather suitcase just nearby. She was dressed in pink calico, with a yellow ribbon in her hair; and she was holding Methos's sword. She seemed quite fascinated by it, turning it over and over, and every so often testing the edge.
"Hey!" Methos had taken a step towards her before his befuddled brain could remind him that she wasn't really a three year old girl - or any sort of girl at all. "Don't... don't muck about with that. How's she got it, anyway? I thought they weren't really here?"
"They are and they aren't." Harkness shrugged in a fashion that suggested it made perfect sense to him. Mehos would have glared, had he not been too unnerved by the idea of his sword in the hands of one of the Elementals. They knew how to kill him - he was certain of it by now.
"Nice leprechaun." Possibly that was just a sure way of getting himself killed, but he couldn't think of what else to say. "Nice leprechaun. Give me the sword, yes?"
"It isn't really a little kid, you know." Clearly trying to work some life back into protesting shoulders, Jack sounded as stiff and tired as Methos felt. "Also, it doesn't understand a word you say to it."
"So I'm supposed to let it keep my sword, am I?" He took another, very nervous step forward, and was rewarded with a loud hiss, and a display of tiny, sharp fangs. "Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad idea after all."
"It wants something. They've been chattering away to me ever since I woke up." Jack joined him, eyeing the Elemental critically. "Like I know what they're saying. Sounded pretty determined, though."
"They?" Methos glanced around, at first not seeing the others. Only after a moment did they become clear - about ten of them, standing in a rough half-circle. Somewhat oddly, they all seemed to be smiling at him. "Oh, great. A family outing. What do they want?"
"How do I know? It's your sword they've got, colonel. It's you they want something from."
"Well whatever it is, they're not having it. I've just been blown up - or at least I think I have. I don't want to have to fight with them too. Forget it. I'll find another sword. Bound to be another one down here somewhere."
"Try finding one before they do. Try getting possession of it before they do. Colonel, if they want something from you..."
"They don't speak my language! I can't speak theirs. They wander around trying to look sinister, they cause trouble and they kill people. If they want something from me, they can stop the stupid stunts and ask me outright. Or better still don't bother. There can't be anything they can get from me that they can't get from you - and you're actually prepared to listen to them. Are they really that stubborn, or are they just stupid?"
"Who knows?" As though in experimentation, Jack walked over to the girl with the sword, and made a grab for it. The girl growled - a far, far deeper sound than could possibly have been created by a real child of her size - and for a tiny flicker of time, Methos saw something else in her place. There was not nearly long enough for him to see it properly, but whatever it was, it had coarse, dark fur, and seemed to be taller than him. He had a confusing glimpse of huge, powerful fangs, blurring into the tiny, pointed teeth of the small girl; of deep, black eyes fading back into almost human orange ones - and he stepped back a pace as quickly as his legs would allow.
"That's a no," Jack told him, as though he had needed telling. Methos rubbed his eyes, and found himself wishing for a stiff whisky. Sometimes even beer wasn't tonic enough.
"We tried," he told the girl, weariness showing in his voice. He had no idea why he was talking to it - it couldn't understand him, or so Harkness maintained. "You saw what happened. We go near, it blows us up. I don't plan on trying that very often." In answer he got a toothy hiss, and the half-circle of other Elementals began to move slowly closer. "Uh oh."
"Yeah, that doesn't look good, does it." Jack, needless to say, was smiling at him, though this time without quite so much vigour. "I'm guessing they've either finally had enough, or they're about to show you what it is they want."
"I can do without either, frankly." Methos looked from the advancing group to the lone small girl. She was pointing the sword at him, and as he watched, she drew one finger across her throat, grinning all the while. "Oh, that's just unfair. Why's it always me?"
"Just lucky, I guess." Jack's voice sounded strangely distant, and when Methos turned, it was to see the other man moving backwards away from him, further and further into the shadows, apparently without moving a muscle. The old Immortal's eyes widened in alarm.
"Don't send him away! You want him! He's much more helpful than I am. Jack!"
"Sorry, colonel." Now just a shape lurking on the fringes of the lights, Jack was struggling as though against a force far too powerful to resist. Methos groaned. He was surrounded now, small children everywhere he looked - far more of them than there had been before. The one with his sword was in the front, and her smile was cold and calculating. His neck prickled warningly at him, but when he tried to step back, he found that he could not move.
"Look, we can talk about this, right? I mean, we've been here together all night. We've got to know each other... sort of. I don't see why it all has to go sour now. We could--" A cold hand - frightening, bitingly cold - touched his own, and he looked down into the ice blue eyes of a small boy. At the same time, a similar grip took his other hand, and this time he looked into the hot, red eyes of a child that might have been male or female, or both, or neither. He tried to break away, but the chill was travelling up his arms, deadening them. He was half convinced that his fingers were going to snap. Around him other children were gripping his legs now, and the cold was so great that he could hardly breathe. He wanted to shiver, but he was too cold even for that. His lips struggled to move, but it was a pointless effort; he was no longer capable of producing the sound that he needed. There was nothing within him now but the cold, and his vision blurred almost to nothingness. Only then did he finally see what the Elementals were trying to show him. Not words, not any form of communication that he recognised. Just pictures - jerky, jagged, moving pictures, like the oldest of the home movies that he had seen in days gone by.
There was a man. A farmer, in a smock, his hands muddy from working with an ancient plough. Small children played nearby, and he smiled to see them - until they swarmed about him, and seemed to be absorbed into his body. He moved differently then, a lop-sided smile on his face, and an ungainly tilt to his walking. Methos watched as he made his way over to the tiny house that was so obviously his, and wandered inside. The scene shifted. It was dark and smoky inside. An old woman sat dozing before a peat fire. The farmer dragged her from her chair, and choked her with his bare hands, before wandering back out into the light. Before he was fully through the door, his knees were buckling. He was stumbling and falling, and there was blood gushing from his ears, and then all of a sudden--
There was a woman. She was about forty, dressed in travelling clothes, and riding on the back of a stagecoach. The wind was in her hair, and she looked gloriously happy. The joy turned to confusion, though, when she was confronted suddenly by two small children. She had no time to speak; certainly no time to call out to the driver. Just a second later the children had been absorbed into her, just as they had been absorbed by the farmer before. She shivered briefly, then began to climb forward, clambering over piles of luggage until she was directly behind the driver. She jumped forward then, landing heavily beside him, and throwing him from the seat as though he weighed nothing at all. She grabbed the reins then, whipping the horses up into a frenzy, sending them galloping ever faster across the uneven plains, as the passengers inside the coach screamed in terror. Methos saw the blood begin to run from her ears, but when, a moment later, she fell soundlessly after the driver, it still came as a shock. The coach rattled on for a moment, but he didn't see what happened to it in the end. Soon after the woman fell, the images changed again. A wrench in his head, a shower of stars and fog, and then--
There was a boy, perhaps of nineteen or so, and a girl of much the same age. They were in a barn, lying on some straw, grappling together in a cloud of dust. Two small children stood in the doorway watching - two children who were suddenly four; and then suddenly were none at all. The teenagers stopped kissing then, and instead rose to their feet and went outside. They climbed into the car that had been parked near the barn door, and gunning the engine they sped away. Methos saw a dizzying, truncated version of their journey, culminating in their arrival in a town. They sped about, howling with laughter of a sort, sending pedestrians leaping for safety, and making other motorists crash hither and thither in their wake. By the time the telltale gush of blood was showing in their ears the pair had created a scene of carnage. Crashed cars, terrified pedestrians, smashed market stalls - a riot of noise and broken colour. Seconds later the car was a crushed mess beside a towering brick wall, but Methos was sure that the pair inside had been dead before the crash. He shuddered, and the images faded away. The Elementals liked to possess people, Harkness had said. It was always fatal, but they did it anyway. Little people, making mischief. What did they care?
"You're not possessing me." He had no idea why they would want to; or why, if it was what they did want, they hadn't merely done it already. "I don't want my brain bubbling out of my ears. No way." Around him the children muttered something that he couldn't hear, and undoubtedly wouldn't have been able to understand anyway. "No! Ask Harkness. I keep telling you that he's the one you want." Tiny hands tugged at him, sensation returning as the cold faded a little. His hands hurt as circulation returned - hurt fiercely and terribly, and made his nerve endings burn like fire. Another picture came to his mind then - one of blue fire, crackling and licking at the world around it, like lightning come to life. He knew it at once, for it had been a part of his life for as long as he could remember. It was the Quickening - the power that filled him, and that flooded him with so much pain and pleasure whenever he took another Immortal life. His heart sang just to see it, and the very thought of it drove the agonising pain from his reviving fingers. His head threw itself back, and he felt the power surging through him. Around him the children were holding out their hands, gazing at him as though he were suddenly so much more than the valueless human he had been to them before. He understood then. They wanted him because they could sense the power that was his. Perhaps they respected him for it, or perhaps they craved it for themselves - he only knew that because of it he was special to them, and they were sure that they could make use of him. Harkness had been right. They had been watching him, he realised. Seeing what he was, guessing at what he was made of. He could sense their intention, almost as though they had told him all about it. Perhaps they had, in their own peculiar way. They wanted to possess him, presumably to combat the power that had taken Hemingway. One force against another. He shook his head.
"You have got to be joking." He could feel them, pressing at his mind, like fingers trying to force their way into his skull. They couldn't get in there, he realised. He was too strong, either by virtue of age, or just because of what he was. They couldn't take him unless he allowed it. He smiled then. He wasn't going to allow it. Why the hell should he? His answer came in the touch of steel at his throat; in the light, slicing motion that made blood trickle along his skin. His nerve endings jangled furiously, every instinct telling him to fight, to run, to do anything to get away - but also to remain completely, agonisingly still. The sword pressed against his jugular vein, and he heard the mocking laughter of children. Head tilted back in one last, desperate attempt to put some distance between himself and the blade, he closed sightless eyes that he had not realised were still open, and wondered how he could agree when his captors didn't speak his language. He didn't need to, of course, any more than he had needed to voice his refusal. They seemed to take the answer from his mind, those questing psychic fingers reaching inside him, plucking out thoughts and ideas, even when the words meant nothing to them. The laughter grew louder, but it was no longer the laughter of children. He thought for a moment that the hands holding his own were bigger, stronger, largely covered in coarse, greasy fur - but then all at once the sensation had ceased, and the hands were gone. There were voices inside his head, whispering to each other just too quietly for him to hear; fingers that seemed to be caressing him from the inside; an irresistible compulsion to open his eyes, even though all that he really wanted was to curl up alone in the dark. With an effort that did not seem entirely his own, he forced himself to look around. He was standing on the deck, staring up at the sky, where the grey light of dawn was spreading fast. The silence told him that of Jack there was no sign, and it came as no surprise. The Elementals had no use for Jack, whomever or whatever he was. They wanted nothing to do with him. Standing here, cold and damp in the strangeness of this lonely morning, Methos envied the odd American no end.
"Hello?" He spoke the words to the sky, before memory returned, and he briefly touched his throat. The sword was gone. He straightened his head, and looked around properly. The deck seemed deserted, but there was a faint green light coming from the wheelhouse. Slowly, feet like lead, he headed towards it. He didn't seem to have any choice.
"Hemingway?" His voice sounded a million miles away, his throat heavy and strange. A second later the mortal appeared in the doorway, the green glow still filling him with its unearthly hue. He looked confused, exhausted, his eyes out of focus.
"What do you want?" He had asked the same question before, more than once, but this time it was with a flatter voice, any suggestion that he might be interested in the answer now gone. Methos shrugged. He had no idea what he wanted. No idea why he was here, or what he was expected to do. No new pictures appeared in his mind; no guidance came from whatever presences lurked inside him. He tried to smile at Hemingway, but it was as though he had forgotten how.
"You're dying," he said in the end, struck by how similar their voices now were. Hemingway's green-tinted eyes narrowed.
"Escaping," he said, by way of correction. Methos shook his head, the movement stiff and strong.
"Dying." He knew it with a certainty of recognition, for he knew that he was dying as well. Knew it from the tickling sensation in his ears that was certainly blood. Hemingway shrugged.
"You first." There was a hint of spite; of petulance. Hemingway was bitter about what had happened to him, and Methos could understand that. It wasn't his problem, though. Finally dredging up the smile that had been refusing to come, he resisted the urge to wipe away the blood now dribbling down both sides of his neck.
"You know I have to stop you," he said, still without a clue as to how he was supposed to do that. Where the bloody hell was Jack? Pretence at expertise was his department. Hemingway didn't react, but the green glow deepened. Methos had no idea what power - what living force - it was that had created that glow; had inhabited Hemingway. What force it was that had been imprisoned by the Elementals and was trying now to stay out of their clutches. He didn't want to know. Pity wasn't his business. It never had been, and he wasn't about to try it now that there were monsters in his head, and blood running from his ears; now that his pulse was beginning to race, and his breath was becoming insubstantial in his lungs. If he was going to pity anybody, it would be himself. Anxious to get this over with, and assuming that the Elementals would play their card at some point, he took a step forward, surprised when Hemingway jerked back. He had always been too confident for such behaviour in the past; too sure of himself, and of his position. Now it was almost as though he couldn't retreat fast enough.
"Oh, great. Chase games." Methos held up his hands, hopefully rather than sincerely, trying to look harmless. Harkness had tried the same thing earlier, not that it had worked. "Look, I don't want to hurt you." It was a hopelessly inaccurate claim, and he knew it. So did Hemingway, like as not. The mortal took another step back as though to prove it, the sickly green glow deepening and paling once again to its alien rhythm. It was beginning to make Methos feel ill.
"Okay, so I lied."
"There's death in your eyes." Hemingway was frowning, but in a curiously stiff fashion, as though facial expression did not come easily to him. He passed one hand across his face, and beads of sweat glowed brightly, spattering onto the deck. How he could be sweating when it was so cold, Methos couldn't imagine, quite convinced that his own sweat would be ice crystals before it broke the surface of his skin. He summoned a patient smile that he was fairly sure never arrived.
"I should bloody well hope so. I'm a killer." The words erupted out, forceful and abrupt. "I've killed more people than you could ever imagine. More people than I can imagine, probably. Why do you think those horrible little things have sent me to you? I kill." He wasn't sure where the words had come from, though they hadn't felt forced upon him. Now, he thought, would be a great time to brandish his sword. He wondered where it was, but didn't remember seeing it since the small girl had had it down in the hold. Great - so they had sent him up here without a weapon. He supposed that he shouldn't be surprised. It wasn't as though they had specialised in making things easy thus far.
"I kill too now." Hemingway stopped back-pedalling, and instead took a step forward. "I thought it was them, but it's not. It's me."
"It's that jar thing," corrected Methos. Hemingway shrugged.
"Same difference. It's me. Didn't want it to be, but it is. I've lost track of the join, now. Not even sure when it's speaking or when I am. It really is killing me, isn't it."
"One way or another." Harkness might be able to answer that question, and Methos wished he were here now, with his infuriating grin and endless flirting. There would not, surely, be so many shadows here then. He struggled to smile. "So does that mean you're ready to give up?"
"Do you think it would let me even if I were?" Hemingway shook his green head, shuddering slightly. "I want to live. I don't care what that life is like. I'll take what I can get. Which means... well, you know what it means."
"Some kind of fight, undoubtedly." Methos's distaste showed clearly in his voice. Fighting was definitely Harkness's territory, and it wasn't bloody fair. He didn't even have his lamp anymore. It would have been better than no weapon at all. "You should know that those things have sent me up here for some reason. Chances are that that thing inside you didn't realise how fragile mortals are, and now you're weakening fast. The Elementals want control of the game when it needs to find something else to get into." The truth of this hit him only as the words were tumbling out, and he swore softly. Maybe that was why so many people had died that day. Almost certainly without knowing it, the life force inside Hemingway was being manipulated, and almost certainly into jumping into Methos himself. The very idea made him nauseous, but if there was a way out, he couldn't see it now.
"You're lying. It's all lies." Hemingway sounded bored; listless. "You're bleeding. I can see it. Who's really going to be the one to die?"
"Not me." Of that he was always determined. Experimentally he clenched his fists, as though prepared to battle this out the old fashioned way. He wasn't terribly surprised when, a second later, he was lying on his back twenty feet away, with a ringing in his ears. Annoyed, he scrambled to his feet, hampered momentarily by lingering ice crystals that made the going slippery. Hemingway came to join him before he was halfway back, his frown showing as deeper lines of green in his forehead.
"You never stay dead, do you," he said, almost conversationally. Methos brushed dust and ice from what had once been an extremely expensive pair of trousers.
"You didn't get the hint when you stabbed me to death?"
"I suppose." The frown deepened further. "What are you? You crackle. I can hear it. It's like... fire and lightning."
"And you hum." He hadn't been able to hear it before, but he could now. It was a low, bass noise, like something from the earth. A noise that rose and fell with each change in the depth of that nauseating green. His perception was different now, he guessed; the things inside him making him more sensitive to whatever was powering the other man. They were stirring in his mind as though waiting to be born, and he felt that things were coming to a head. They had to be. Immortal or no, he couldn't take much more of this; and neither, clearly, could Hemingway. The poor fool's skin was practically transparent now. Methos was almost glad that so far he didn't seem to have noticed it.
"You have no idea of the power that runs through me." Hemingway sounded proud. Methos nodded, not bothering to argue with the man. Let him have his moment of glory; his moment of pride. It would all mean nothing in the end. Instead he turned away, flexing his fingers, testing himself after this latest battering. He was stiff all over, but he would heal. Stretching out his arms, he watched for a moment as the muscles moved beneath his skin. Something sparked around them, that made him frown for a moment in confusion. Something blue and bright, that seemed to caress him, highlighting his shape and form. He blinked, taken aback. Like Hemingway's, his fingernails were glowing.
"You're shining." Hemingway sounded almost like a child. "It's pretty. I like it. Can I touch?"
"What the hell...?" Methos flexed his fingers, part fascinated, part appalled. He knew that light; knew it as well as he knew himself. It was his light, his power; but it shouldn't be visible now. The Quickening only took form when an Immortal died. His hands shook, but by heaven the fires felt good against his skin. Warm and intense and so very, very alive.
"It's magnificent." Hemingway was practically salivating. "It's... it's..."
"A kind of magic." Methos's voice was cold, his smile grim and humourless. That gleam of want; that lust in the other man's gaze - that was all the indication he needed of what had to be done. His shirt was wet with blood by now, his neck and chest sticky with it. His thought processes were undoubtedly compromised. He still trusted his instincts, though - his instincts that screamed at him to run. Instincts that he knew he couldn't obey. Stepping forward, movements jerky, strength failing, he felt his grin slip into a lop-sided caricature of itself. "Well? Come and get it."
"No!" Deathly pale, scrabbling at nothing, Hemingway struggled to cling to something. The green light was fading, though, whatever he tried to do, flooding from his face and body, and concentrating itself in his hands. They burned like fire, while his face turned chalk white. "No! Help me!"
"I am." Methos thought that he had spoken the words aloud, but wasn't sure. Wasn't sure if they were the lie that they sounded like, or were really a strange sort of truth.
"I need it." Hemingway was trying to move his hand, one of them jerking back every so often to the pocket where the jar was secreted - but every time a greater force dragged the hands away,reaching out towards Methos. Hemingway was fighting to stay possessed, trying to cling to an ethereal force. It was probably a pathetic sight, some part of Methos's brain acknowledged. The rest of his mind was far too occupied with more immediate concerns. He was light-headed and weak, he was no longer entirely sure if it was safe to trust his own judgement, and he was aware that his hearing was fading as fast as his strength. There was a rushing sound in his ears, and the blood had begun to soak into the waistband of his trousers. When he reached out for Hemingway's hand, his own shook.
"No--" Hemingway's final plea for help choked itself off, his body trembling uncontrollably as the green light began to flow from his body, entering instead into Methos. For a moment the old Immortal felt the flush of a new power flooding him, filling his body with a strength that chased away the fatigue of his blood loss. He shuddered beneath its onslaught, beneath the feel of a new consciousness invading his own. He had the sensation of a shapeless mass; of a being like nothing he had ever encountered; green, pulsing, and grabbing at anything it could hold. It spread within him, and the humming he had heard before began to grow in volume. He heard the crackling as well, then - the sound that Hemingway had said was his. The fire of the Quickening given voice. The two sounds rose and fell, and somewhere beyond he heard another noise. It was the sound of a man crying. He wanted to open his eyes to look, but when he tried he could see only light. Green light, blue light, crackling, humming, blinding light. There was another sound now, though - the laughter of children. Small, mocking children. He knew that his own arms were reaching out, and he knew that it was Hemingway's neck that his hands were closing upon. He knew that the strength was not his own, but the rush of joy that flooded him as that alien strength tore the head from the body was most certainly his. Warm blood spattered everywhere, chasing away some of the cold that still filled him. Hemingway's body slumped to the ground at his feet, and his left hand clenched convulsively around the head. It was his trophy; the prize that he had won. He had kept such things once, hanging on ropes to decorate his tent. Those days didn't seem so far away now, as he stood there blinded, half-deafened, held upright only by the surging of conflicting energies through his weakened form. His hand shook, and he twined his fingers in the hair of Hemingway's head. He had to keep hold of it. It was all he had right now that was real. The scent of it, and the memories of times past, helped him to focus on himself as the green light tore through him. Any moment now, he knew, the Elementals that were within him were going to make their move, and spring their trap. He had to have something to focus on then. He had to have something to hold onto. As his knees began to fail him, as his head began to droop forward, he heard that mocking, childish laughter again, but this time within his own head. Ringing, impossibly loud, it hurt him to his very core, and he felt the green light writhe in a pain of its own. Behind his eyes the light pulsed; a formless creature panicking, and screaming in desperation. It would try to go back to Hemingway now, he guessed; but Hemingway was dead, his body torn to pieces by the tiny children clustered at Methos's feet. The scent of his blood was strong in the cold air, drowning out the scent of the sea. The wetness of it soaked through Methos's trousers as he sank to his knees in the midst of all the gore. A terrible desperation filled him, but he knew that it was not his own. Something inside him was wailing in primal despair. He felt nothing in response to its pain, though even he might have expected to feel some pity. Either he was too tired, too far gone, or just too hard-hearted - he didn't know. He didn't know much of anything anymore, save that writhing inside him. The creature was looking for escape - for anything else to transfer itself to. Inside himself Methos saw body after body, and knew that everybody else was now dead. A rat scuttled along a corridor, but the presence inside him clearly had no use for it. It pressed on, searching, fighting, coming at last upon Jack. Methos saw him standing in the hold, surrounded by Elementals, and felt hope surge within him. It was the creature's hope at the sight of this one last hope of salvation - but he couldn't deny that his own heart was lifted as well. For some reason it was good to see the aggravating sod. He wanted to warn Jack that the creature was coming for him, but didn't know how; couldn't find his voice; doubted that Jack would hear anyway. Wasn't he too far away? Methos wasn't sure. He thought that he heard Jack's voice in his mind, though, for a moment; felt the creature whisper something that might have been a satisfied "Mine!" Then, a second later, there was an audible gasp of horror. A recoil, a hiss of distaste - something that seemed a blurred tangle of dislike and repulsion. "Unclean!" hissed the voice in his mind. "Unclean! Broken! Wrong!"
"Jack?" Methos couldn't even hear his own question above the tumult of the creature's horrified recoiling. How could Jack be wrong? Annoying, yes. Infuriating, definitely. But wrong? Unclean? He thought of the immortality that was not like his own, and wondered, briefly, before his mind was torn away again by the battle going on inside it. The creature had no place to escape to now. No last refuge. The mocking laughter was back, and this time it seemed to ring out inside Methos's skull, dropping him down until his hands rested beside his knees in the bloodied ruin of Hemingway's body. He wasn't sure at what moment they left him; whether the creature went first, or whether it and the Elementals went together. He was aware just of a sob, that might have been his own, or might not have been. After that there was only the up and down motion of the boat, far more exaggerated than it had any right to be. He thought that he wanted to be sick, but wasn't sure that he remembered how.
"Colonel?" It was Jack's voice. Jack's arms around his, Jack's strength lifting him out of the puddle of blood and gore. Hemingway's head still swung from his fingers, though. Methos clung to that as though to reality. He sighed, happy to find that his mind was empty of intrusion, and strangely comfortable as Jack held him close. He tried mumbling something to that effect, but all that came from his mouth was an incoherent moan; and grumbling in a language he hadn't heard in a thousand years, he gave up. It was an unfamiliar sensation to slip gently into death whilst cradled in somebody's arms; but not, he found, an unpleasant one. Quite the opposite. This time it was almost a pleasure to die.
He awoke feeling refreshed, rocked by a gentle swell, a warm breeze blowing across his face. Jack was no longer holding him, but when he opened his eyes he saw the other man standing by the rail, staring out to sea. Methos stirred slowly, sitting up in gradual stages. He didn't need the care, he realised; his body was completely recovered, all vestiges of the struggle washed away. He felt almost as he did after taking a Quickening, as though his own power had enjoyed the fight. He felt good. A smile came unbidden, and he stretched with vigour.
"How are you?" asked Jack, turning around slowly. Methos's smile broadened.
"Great. Really great." Jack's tuxedo jacket lay bunched up on the deck, clearly having been pressed into service as a pillow, and he shook it out. It was well nigh ruined by the events of the night, but he made the effort anyway. Only when he saw the bloodstains on his hands did he think to look down at the deck, where the last remains of Hemingway had left such a mess earlier. They had been inexpertly sluiced away, a few stains still remaining. He looked then at his left hand, finding a couple of the fingers stuck together with a tacky mess that was all too familiar. Jack didn't meet his eyes.
"I threw it overboard. I didn't think you'd be wanting to keep it once you were... once you were you again."
"No. No, quite." He had been himself all along, though, hadn't he? He had certainly felt more or less like himself when he had torn the head off. He chose not to mention that, and instead stood up, holding out the jacket. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah. I was below decks the whole time, wondering what was going on. There was a weird moment when it felt like something was trying to get inside my head, but it didn't last. You were having quite a party, huh."
"I suppose you could call it that." He remembered all too well when the creature had tried to reach out to Jack; recalled its fear and disgust when it had touched him. Whatever Jack was, that being had been repulsed by him; had thought him somehow wrong. Methos chose not to mention that either. Jack was clearly trying to find out what he was, but some things, maybe, didn't need to be learnt. Or would be found out soon enough anyway.
"It's gone, then." Taking the jacket and shrugging it back on, despite its battered state, Jack summoned up a wan echo of his usual smile. "The thing. The whatever it was. They've got it back."
"Yeah, they've got it back." Harkness felt sorry for it, clearly. Felt bad that they had sent it back into the imprisonment it had fought so hard to escape. "Listen, there was never any choice. It had to happen. You said yourself that humankind had to be your first priority - and I know that I've always been mine. Forget that thing. We don't even know what it was."
"Like that matters. Hell, when did I get so insular that I've started talking about humanity being my first concern? I'm from out there, colonel. Up there, somewhere. You know, one of the best damn girlfriends I ever had was made out of light. Though not that colour, gladly. She was from a little planet right on the edge of the Echoria System, and we had three incredible months of..." He trailed off. "We let it down. We didn't even find out what it was. Who it was. I don't even want to think about what we sent it back to."
"We saved ourselves." Forcing apart his glued fingers, Methos wished for something to rinse them in. Licking the blood off was always an option, but probably not the best one to go for right now. Jack didn't look impressed.
"We saved you. I was never in any danger. Everybody else on board is dead. You were out for a couple of hours, colonel. I've checked everywhere I can of think to check, and everybody's dead. All we saved was you."
"And the rest of the planet. They'd have got around to the rest of the population sometime. They had to if they were going to keep that thing contained. Or at least, I think that was how it worked." He frowned, his thoughts on the subject no longer quite as clear as they had been. His confused brain clearly wasn't sure what to make of all that had happened. "Come on, Jack. Don't take it so hard."
"We could have... should have..." The other man sighed, and shook his head. "I don't know. It sure as hell doesn't feel like a victory to me, colonel."
"Yeah, well. We're alive. Maybe you've got a different perspective, captain, but to me, being alive is always the greatest victory. My life is worth saving. To me."
"So I gather." A reluctant smile came slowly to life on Harkness's face. "I am glad you're alive. It would have been a hell of a waste otherwise."
"You're telling me." Deciding that he would have to forego a wash for the time being, he settled for scrubbing his hands on his trousers in an effort to remove the worst of the blood. "I don't suppose there was any sign of my sword down in the hold, was there?"
"I think I saw it on the floor. I wasn't really looking." Jack shrugged, unrepentant. "Sorry old man. Swords aren't really my thing."
"No. More of an 'all guns blazing' sort of bloke, aren't you. Well, I suppose it's more modern, but I'm not sure it's any more sophisticated."
"Sophisticated isn't really my thing either." Jack smirked, the glint in his eyes unmistakable. "My talents lie in other areas."
"I won't ask." He smiled back, admitting to himself, almost reluctantly, that he really had warmed to the man. "There's one thing you've got that's sophisticated, though, Harkness - and that's that glorified bracelet of yours. Do something clever with it, and find my sword."
"Yessir." He snapped off a smart salute, then set to work with his wristband, tapping away industriously. "Got it. You know, once upon a time I'd have been able to zap myself straight down there to pick it up. Nowadays..."
"Your legs are younger than mine, captain." Methos produced a winning smile, and earned himself a withering glare.
"You know, you don't look five thousand."
"I'll take that as a compliment. Hurry up."
"Yes sir." This time there was no salute, and no military bearing, though there was still a warm glint in the eye. "On one condition. There's a bucket over there. Pull up some seawater and wash some of the blood off. You look like it was you who got torn apart."
"Good idea." He headed for the bucket with a marked spring in his step. "I'd suggest warming some water for a bath..."
"...But then I'd have to offer to join you." Jack threw him a wink. "I'll see if I can find you some soap, though."
"They'll all be dead, Jack. Do you really want to go through their rooms?"
"I was planning on going to my cabin. There won't be any dead people in there." This time his smile was noticeably less cheerful. "Back as soon as I can."
"Thanks." The right thing to do would be to throw in a 'don't hurry', or a 'there's no rush'; but there was a hurry, and there was a rush. He hated to be so far from his sword. Had it not been for the fact that he was sure Jack would be quicker, he would have gone himself. Quite why he was prepared to let a virtual stranger fetch the weapon, he didn't know. Trust didn't come easily to Methos, and it never had. For some reason, though, he trusted Jack. He might be weird, annoying and unnecessarily loud; and he might make nightmare creatures recoil in terror; but Methos trusted him. It was rather a novel experience.
The old Immortal was on his second bucket of water by the time Jack returned, the first having turned a pleasing shade of blood red after only a very cursory rinsing session. Bearing a sword in one hand, and a bar of soap in the other, Harkness cut an odd image, but the short time on his own seemed to have restored his spirits again, at least a little. He even presented the sword with a bow and a grandiose flourish. Methos glared at him.
"Are you ever not annoying?"
"Not often. You want help scrubbing your back?"
"I wasn't planning on having that thorough a wash." He took the soap, scrubbing at his hands and face, and once again bemoaning the state of his suit. "I need to get changed. Preferably into something that doesn't make me look like a psychopath. I'm not going to get very far dressed like this."
"You going somewhere?" Sitting down on the deck nearby, Jack stretched out in the sun. "There's still this boat to get to port, colonel."
"I know. And a lot of questions to answer, and a lot of dead people who need explaining away. That's not my scene, Jack. And besides, there'll be other questions. Lots of tedious little officialities that my records won't necessarily stand up to. I'm not entirely on this ship by honest means."
"Which would be a surprise to approximately nobody." Jack sat up a little, eyeing Methos askance. "You're planning on taking one of the boats."
"I am, yes. Well, not so much planning as intending." He scrubbed at a particularly stubborn bloodstain, fighting soap hell-bent on escape. "No reason to expect there'll be any more giant sea snakes, right? You should come as well. Let the authorities worry about what happened here, and make sure that neither of us takes the blame."
"I won't. I have friends." Jack lay back down again, his hands behind his head. "They're based in Wales, but they have a lot of contacts. I might spend a night in jail, but there won't be any charges. I'd rather stay with the ship, and see it into port safely. Make sure the cargo doesn't get lost somewhere. Some of these people might have families."
"Families who are seriously in need of a shipload of old vases and silver teasets." Methos shrugged, abandoning his attempts to wash after the soap's sixth bid for freedom. "It's your choice. There's no way that I'm staying around, though. I don't like to be the centre of attention. Well - not in that way. There could be newspaper interest; even movie reel news nowadays. It pays to stay out of the limelight."
"Probably does, if you're always expecting people to come after your head. That's what the sword is for, isn't it. Whatever you are, there's lots of you, and you're always trying to kill each other? That's no way to live."
"It's not what I would have chosen, no. But then none of us gets to choose what we are, do we."
"No." This time Jack's voice showed none of its trademark humour. "Okay, colonel. Go get changed. I'll lower a boat for you. You should grab some water from the galley to be on the safe side, but we're not far from land. You should be ashore before dark."
"With my navigating I wouldn't be so sure about that." Methos dried himself clumsily on his suit jacket, then stowed away his sword in its hidden sheath. "You sure you don't want to come?"
"There's a whole lot of fun two guys can get up to in a small boat out at sea." Jack raised his head long enough to offer a typically sparky smile. "But no. I'm not leaving them, colonel."
"You better have one hell of a good story ready. Still, like I said. Your choice." Quite convinced that the other man was mad, Methos headed for the steps that led below decks. By the time he emerged some time later, freshly changed and carrying a small bag and a barrel of water, there was a boat moored alongside waiting for him. Jack was sitting on the rail, apparently balancing there by sheer force of will. He was looking at his wristband, and glanced up when Methos reappeared.
"Weather should hold. You should have a good trip."
"That thing predicts the weather as well? You ought to market it. You'd be a billionaire in weeks."
"Thanks, but no thanks. I'm already in enough trouble with the Time Agency." He jumped down, snapping the cover back over the unfathomable gadgetry within the wristband. "Give you a hand with your luggage, squire?"
"Will I have to tip you?"
"Believe it or not, I hadn't thought of that." Jack's grin leapt out once again, and this time Methos almost matched it. He was half convinced that he was going to miss the incorrigible fool, and slinging his bag onto one shoulder, he offered the other man his hand. Jack shook it, unexpectedly formal in his demeanour.
"Good luck," he offered, as he took the bag and the barrel. Methos clambered awkwardly over the rail.
"You're the one heading into harbour with a ship full of dead people," he reminded his companion. "All I have to do is not sink for a few hours."
"All the same." Tossing down the scant baggage, Jack set about untying the rope that was holding the little boat to the rail. "Look after yourself. I still want to buy you that drink one day."
"There's really no hurry about that, Jack. For either of us. The world's not that big, and neither of us is getting any older. I'll see you around."
"I'll look forward to it." He let the rope go, and the boat drifted a little. Stowing his things on the floor, Methos settled himself to the oars.
"This is probably a stupid question," he said, as he fumbled to get the unruly chunks of wood properly settled in the rowlocks. "But which way's land?"
"The bit you want? Thattaway." Jack pointed with a thumb, and Methos nodded, clumsily turning the boat around with some decidedly wobbly one-handed rowing. "Are you sure you're going to be okay in that thing?"
"Fine. So long as there's no pirates or Viking raiders. Or leprechauns." The two vessels had drifted some way apart now, and he had to raise his voice. "Look after yourself, Jack."
"You too. Keep your head where it belongs."
"Always." Bending to the oars, he pulled several long, hard strokes, pausing only once to look back at the ship. Jack was still standing at the rail, a bedraggled and lonely figure, slowly slipping into the distance. For a moment Methos felt sorry for him, alone on a ship of the dead; alone in life as well, come to that, without the faintest idea of what he was. It was a thought that didn't last long. Methos didn't do sympathy. Not for other people anyway.
"You're getting sentimental in your old age, Methos." He laughed at the thought even as he voiced it. Sentimental. Him. He who still had a dead man's blood beneath his fingernails, and had cheerfully sent an unknown creature to a fate it had feared. Hardly. If he could remember the days before he had faced his First Death, he might have an idea if he had ever been inclined to such softer tendencies, but he doubted that he had. Mortal or Immortal, survival still counted; and there was no room for sentimentality in survival. Or in anything else, come to that. There - that felt more like his kind of philosophy. He smiled to himself, and ignored the very real sorrow that was lurking in the deeper recesses of his mind. He didn't care for the people on the ship. He didn't care for the amorphous mass he had condemned. He didn't care for Harkness, all alone in the world.
"Damn." The word echoed in the empty sea, and he scowled furiously at the oars. It would take forever to catch up with the other boat, he told himself. It had an engine. It had already left him behind. By the time he caught up with it, it would have docked, and Harkness would likely already be in jail. It was foolish to even consider changing direction now. On the other hand, though, the American had promised him a drink. He weighed up the options. Stay on course, sneak ashore, stroll merrily back off to a new life; or row his arms off, argue with the authorities for the release of a friend - no, not a friend, a considerable annoyance - and then fend off said annoyance's amorous advances for however long they remained in each other's company. When all was said and done, it wasn't much of a trade-off; not even if there was free beer in it. No, it was much, much better to stick to plan A. Plan A was good. It was quiet, it was unobtrusive, and it didn't have any annoying Americans in it. Tightening his hold on the oars, he pulled harder, and turned his thoughts to those of land. Land and a good breakfast, and a proper, hot bath. He was sticking to plan A. Definitely.
He would just have to pretend he hadn't noticed that he had already turned the boat around.