Changing of the Guard 3: Be All That You Can Be Ecolea Chapter 14 "Are you sure this is the right address?" Jacob turned to his daughter as they stood outside a neat little turn of the century building in a suburb just outside of London. "It looks like a doctor's office." "This is the place," Ramirez said cheerfully, grinning widely as he looked up into a third floor window and waved to someone. "That buzz thing, right?" Jacob whispered to Samantha who merely shrugged. The window was shoved open and a pair of dark, feminine heads leaned out, long hair blowing in the stiff breeze of late summer. "Ramirez?!" "Juan?!" "Beloved and Beloved!" the gregarious Egyptian called out, spreading his arms wide as if to embrace them both. "May weary travelers ask succor and hospitality of thy welcome abode?" "Heavens! It really is the old Casanova!" one of the women laughed. "Get up here you old reprobate!" the other called and the women disappeared as their guests entered the first floor hall. The stairs were narrow and steep, but Ramirez took them two at a time reaching the top just as the door nearest the landing was flung open. Cries of joy and exclamations of happiness echoed from above as Jacob and Samantha followed more slowly. They were dressed casually as Methos had suggested and the two women merely nodded politely as they ushered everyone inside. "There is no more fortunate man," Ramirez said as he held the hand of each woman in one of his own. "Excepting my friend Jacob," he winked at Carter. "Who finds himself in the company of the two most beautiful," he placed a kiss on one delicate hand, "splendid," another kiss on another hand, "women in the world." "Speak for yourself," Jacob grinned. "I think my daughter's a knockout." "Dad!" Samantha hissed, looking embarrassed. "Of course," Ramirez bowed elegantly to her. "And I should have said as much, but doing pushups for being impertinent to a superior officer wasn't something I'd planned on." Ignoring the looks of confusion this comment received from the two ladies Ramirez went on to make their introductions. "My sweet Cassandra," he gave a little half bow to her. "And my darling Cierdwyn." He offered her the same courtesy holding out one arm toward his companions. "I should like you both to make the acquaintance of this very fine gentleman and his brilliant daughter. General Jacob Carter and Major Samantha Carter. Both of the United States Air Force, my new employer." Shock colored both Cassandra's and Cierdwyn's expressions. "First you're not dead and then you come here with the Air Force?!" Cierdwyn shouted, shoving Ramirez' hard enough to make him stagger back a pace. "Have you lost your mind?!" "Cierdwyn," Cassandra chided gently. "We must stay calm. I'm sure he has good reasons for this," her voice rose in a question. "I do indeed," Ramirez murmured. "But perhaps we should find a more commodious place to talk than this empty, albeit charming hallway." A few minutes later they were making themselves comfortable in Cierdwyn's sitting room. Her secretary brought in tea then Cierdwyn asked her to cancel the rest of her appointments for the day and take the afternoon off. "So," Samantha asked just to break the ice once the assistant was gone. "How long have you been a therapist?" Cierdwyn looked curiously at her, obviously confused. "I mean," the major gestured at the shelves lining the walls. "Some of these books are really old. Did you study with Freud?" Cierdwyn hid her surprise though Cassandra stiffened uncomfortably as they both realized that her question not only implied these mortals knew what they were, but confirmed it utterly. "No," Cierdwyn responded calmly. "I only recently took up the profession. Circa 1955. Those books were bequeathed to me by my old friend and mentor, Sean Burns." She looked to Ramirez, mentally dismissing the mortals. "You have a lot of explaining to do, Juan. Start with why you aren't dead, then tell me why I shouldn't challenge you on the spot?" Ramirez waved a hand. "The first is a long story, for which there is plenty of time. The second..." he shrugged. "Times change and we must embrace them. Sometimes it is better to know and be known by those who can be trusted then to remain ignorant and miss the greater fight." "What fight?" Cassandra demanded. "And how does this concern us?" "Actually," Jacob interjected. "It concerns you more than your friend," he nodded to Cierdwyn. "Though from what I can see," he gestured toward the shelves littered with Celtic bric-a-brac. "If you are what I think you are, then I know a few people who'll be glad if you listen in." "And what do you think I am?" Cierdwyn asked curiously, sipping her tea. "That's Boadicea's symbol, isn't it?" Carter asked, nodding toward a rather large, circular stone ornament bolted to the wall. Cierdwyn raised an eyebrow, inclining her head fractionally. "And from the looks of things I'd guess you're too damn old not to know what that stands for. You fought with her against the Romans, didn't you?" "Fought and died," Cierdwyn acknowledged, rather liking the forthright man. He looked at Ramirez then glanced at his daughter. "It's your call, but I'd say your man knew she'd be here." Samantha nodded, smiling just a bit. "Agreed. Go for it." "Airman Ramirez," Carter grinned. "Why don't you introduce your friends to the other member of our party?" The Egyptian's brows went up and he nodded. "A wise idea, General. My dearest ladies, I should like you to meet Selmak, Representative of the High Council of the Tok'ra..." *** Cassandra patted her neck with a cool washcloth, carefully checking her face and hair in the ladies room mirror to make sure everything was in order. She felt more hysterical laughter coming on and covered her mouth, sitting abruptly on the covered toilet seat to calm her nerves. Deep breaths, she told herself. Steady... The urge passed and she sighed, standing slowly before stepping outside to find Ramirez waiting for her, a concerned expression on his handsome face. "Are you well enough to talk?" he asked gently. Cassandra nodded. "I was only startled," she explained. "The creature," she swallowed and looked away. "Selmak. The way it described itself and these Goa'uld... I may have already killed one, you see." Ramirez' eyes widened and he waited for her to continue. "I cast out a demon once," she explained. "In Antioch. It spoke as this one did -- the voice and glowing eyes, but making claims of divinity. I called it forth from the young man it had inhabited and a serpent of some sort tore through the poor boy's throat, entering my body. When I awoke the thing was gone and I could not sense it anywhere within me. My Quickening must have destroyed it," she added thoughtfully. Ramirez nodded slowly, agreeing with her assessment. "The mortals said we could not be possessed, but it is good to have you confirm this." "And you truly believe them?" she asked curiously. "I have been to another world, Cassandra. Passed through this gate of which they speak. How could I not?" "Of course," Cassandra smiled. "You are no one's fool, Ramesses. Forgive me for doubting." "Always, beloved. Now come," he held the door to Cierdwyn's office open, leading her inside where they could talk in private. "There is much to discuss," Ramirez said once they were seated. "But I will not try your patience with flowery words and oblique declarations. It was Methos who sent us on this errand. And he who requested that I warn you of his presence." She paled and her breathing sped up, but Cassandra got control of herself, pressing her palms together as she took a deep breath. "That one is also involved?" "He was the first -- as usual," Ramirez shrugged. "And you trust him? As you do the mortals?" The crease between Ramirez' eyes deepened. "He has been a bit of tyrant these past few weeks, but yes, I trust Methos. He has never played me false." Cassandra sighed. "He and I," she shook her head. "There is much bad blood between us. They tell me he has changed, but..." she shuddered slightly. Ramirez reached out and gently took her hand. "He has changed. And to tell you a secret, he was not like that to start. He was not raised to be a brigand and thief, but an honorable warrior and scholar." Cassandra laughed bitterly. "So he claims!" Ramirez shook his head. "I had the opportunity to converse with his father." Now she looked truly surprised. "Methos may have been born on this world, but he was not raised here among mortals. His father, who called himself Tok'ra, was of an alien race called the Ancients -- beings of such power that they no longer required human forms to survive. It was this Tok'ra, the man who was honored with the taking of his name by those for whom Selmak speaks, who saved my life when I fought the Kurgan." Cassandra thought hard. Methos had been a monster in her eyes for so long... And though she had dealt with her feelings of anger and guilt - - these past three years with Cierdwyn had been a blessing to her -- she still had difficulty seeing him as anything other than the Horseman. Finally, she nodded. "Tell me why you believe he has changed," she requested quietly. "Perhaps..." He patted her hand and smiled. "Because I was there. Not at the beginning," he amended. "That was Methos' doing. He broke his oath, betrayed the others and left to seek his way among mortals." Cassandra raised an eyebrow at that. "It is true," Ramirez insisted. "He went to buy new armor in Athens and was accosted in the market by Socrates." Cassandra laughed hard at this, picturing what that confrontation must have been like. The wily philosopher and the clever Horseman sparring with words not swords. She could indeed see Methos being subtly conquered by the Socratic method of teaching. A process which forced the student to examine every reason they had for believing as they did. It was why Socrates had been condemned to death. He taught his students not only how to question their own motives, but the long held traditions and beliefs of the city. Still... "I do not need to remind you, Ramesses, that the Socratic method does not require one to give up one's misconduct, merely to understand why one does it," she pointed out. "Exactly," Ramirez nodded. "Methos' reasons for doing what he did were... What do the children say today? Lame. And the more he tried to justify his behavior the more he had to admit that his reasoning was flawed. That angered him and so he sought more knowledge in order to bolster his position. But in the seeking Methos was forced to conclude that he was in error. It shattered his perceptions of who he was and what he should be." "He told you this?" "Not in so many words," Ramirez sighed. "But I saw the effects myself centuries later once he'd left the Horsemen. A lost soul desperately seeking knowledge and a means to exist." "You took pity on him?" she asked in astonishment. "Indeed I did," he nodded. "For many reasons. But mostly because I found the situation amusing. The Horseman reduced to stealing library books -- and putting them back on the shelves after, if you can believe it!" "Methos," she stated with a hint of amazement. "Putting stolen goods back where he found them." Cassandra shook her head. "Why am I surprised?" she asked rhetorically. "He was always the odd one." "And there you have hit the nail on the head, my dear," Ramirez smiled proudly. "He was a Horseman, but not of the Horsemen. Not cut from the same cloth as the others. It was circumstance that placed him there. And fear." "Fear?" she demanded. "He led the Horseman!" Ramirez shook his head slowly. "You are seeing him from the point of view of his slave, Cassandra. He may have seemed all powerful to you and an equal to the others, but he wasn't. If you were his prisoner, he was Kronos' trustee. More freedom of movement, but just as constrained by fear." "Of what?" "His teacher. Ku'ahktar." Cassandra inhaled sharply, absently making the sign to ward off the evil eye. "I see you have heard the name," Ramirez nodded. "Good. Because when you think on what he did to you, you must also consider what was done to him. He trained you as he was trained, but with more kindness than was ever shown to him. If you can feel no pity for the Horseman then take pity on the gentle scribe who came into the hands of that beast." "I'd no idea," Cassandra breathed, closing her eyes to push away the images his words had called forth. Terrible rumors she'd heard of deeds so unspeakable they could only be whispered. Methos was doubtless mad by the time he was released. And brilliant madmen could be most dangerous indeed. And oddly enough, she did feel pity. And a sense of sorrow for him. The emotions shocked her and Cassandra opened her eyes, deciding not to look too closely at them for the time being. She would have to wait and see. "All right," she sighed. "You have warned me. And I have had a few years to accept the idea that Methos is still among the living. I will not challenge him immediately." Ramirez nodded thoughtfully. "I know he will be relieved. He does not wish you ill, Cassandra. I don't believe he ever truly did. Just as you have known he lives, so too Methos has known of you. And we both know him well enough to say that if he wished you dead you would be." "Then we have a truce," Cassandra agreed, silently amazed at how little anger she felt at the idea. Then again, she thought as they rose to rejoin the others, Cierdwyn had worked long and hard to help her past the memories. Of course there was fear and a lingering doubt about the eldest Immortal's involvement in all this. But she would deal with it when she saw him. Make her decisions based on who he was and not who he had been. That was a fool's game, she reminded herself as she listened to Major Carter explain the travel plans which would bring them to the United States. As Cierdwyn had reminded her time and again, her captors might have been longer lived, but they were no different than thousands of other men of that era. What had made Kronos, Silas and Caspian worse was that they had carried those same beliefs into the modern age. Could Methos have done the same despite what those who knew him now seemed to believe? she wondered nervously. Perhaps. But again, she vowed silently, the anger would not have her. This was something she herself would need to see. Chapter 15 "A Celtic warrior-woman/shrink," Jack said quietly. O'Neill was waiting for him when Methos stepped off the gate ramp into the SGC. "Boggles the mind, doesn't it?" Methos grinned. The colonel shook his head disgustedly as he led the way to the conference room. "You know I hate surprises, Pierson." "Oh, come on, Jack," Methos chided. "You loved it!" "Yeah, I did," O'Neill agreed. "And you're just gonna love this. She and Cassandra are here." "Figured they would be," Methos nodded as he and O'Neill took their seats at the empty conference table. "Ramirez looked pretty smug when he reported for duty." "Well, now I have a surprise for you," Jack smiled thinly. "You're out of Basic and back on the team. You'll be joining us on this mission." Methos' eyes went wide. "Me and Cassandra? On the same team? Are you out of your mind?!" O'Neill rubbed his eyes tiredly. "Look, Pierson, I've already run this past Hammond and he agrees. You're a valuable member of my team and you are going to be judged on your current actions, not on some shit you pulled three thousand years ago. As far as we're concerned the slate's wiped clean." Methos suddenly felt as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. "And the others? What did Danny have to say?" "He doesn't know specifics. Nobody does. As far as they're concerned you two knew each other a long time ago and parted company under less than pleasant circumstances. They'll understand if your relationship seems strained." "And Cassandra has agreed to this?" Methos asked wonderingly. "She has," O'Neill nodded. "But only on the conditions I've laid out. You two don't speak directly to each other. You have something to say to her, you tell me and I'll do the talking. Same thing goes for Cassandra. I won't tolerate even verbal sparring. So if you have a problem being around her, Pierson, tell me now." Methos held up his hands in surrender. "I've got no problem with it," he responded. "What about Cierdwyn?" O'Neill shrugged. "She's agreed to join the others in training after we leave. Wants to make sure her patient can handle the initial meeting." Methos nodded appreciatively. Cierdwyn was a good woman. She would never risk a patient's well being. "And Cassandra really is okay with this?" O'Neill smiled warmly. "You did good, Pierson. Cierdwyn and I had a long talk after they flew in." The door opened and any further conversation ended as the rest of SG- 1 accompanied by a rather apprehensive looking Cassandra walked in. They took their seats as Methos studiously avoided looking in Cassandra's direction. Even dressed in BDUs the woman was stunning. He savagely cut off that line of thought, gratefully looking toward the connecting door to the general's office as he and Jacob entered. "Good afternoon, people," Hammond began. "If you'd all please take your seats." Daniel slid into his chair, placing two glasses of water on the table. One for himself and one for Cassandra who sat next to him. "Thank you," the general nodded. "Selmak?" Jacob's eyes glowed briefly as his symbiote took control of the meeting. "I have spoken with the Council. They have agreed that the members of SG-1 and their guest should accompany me to the Tok'ra base. Once there, Cassandra will be allowed to interrogate the Goa'uld prisoner. Any information extracted will be shared and a joint effort to recover the weapons stolen by Lord Zipak'na will be made. Are we in agreement?" "We are," Hammond nodded. "Excellent," Selmak smiled. "There is, unfortunately, one small obstacle remaining." "And that would be?" Jack leaned forward. Selmak looked to Methos. "Freya is the Tok'ra expert in Goa'uld interrogation. She has expressed concern over Methos' presence on the team." "I don't know anybody name Freya," Methos looked insulted. "Why me?" Daniel cleared his throat. "Freya is Anise's host, Adam. It was her jaw you broke when her symbiote... You know... Stabbed you to death when you first got here. "Ah yes, Anise..." Methos nodded, recalling that he'd threatened to kill the woman after she'd deliberately exposed his Immortality. "Tell you what," he offered. "As long as no sharp objects go from her hands into my anatomy I'll be on my best behavior. But no visits from Anise," he added firmly. Selmak nodded in acquiescence. "Anise will be somewhat disappointed. She had hoped you would relent and give her the opportunity to make amends. But it is a generous compromise nonetheless, most wise son of Tok'ra." "Oh, please," Methos muttered disgustedly. "And don't say you have a parade all lined up for me. I don't do the returning hero shtick." "As you wish," Selmak sighed in frustration. "I shall inform the Council that you would like to remain anonymous for this visit." O'Neill and the rest of SG-1 laughed as Methos covered his eyes, groaning miserably. Even General Hammond was hard put not to smile. While at the end of the table Cassandra was staring. From one countenance to another and then at Methos, his face now uncovered and as amused as the others. As the meeting broke up a short while later she sidled up to Daniel, allowing him to escort her down to collect their gear. "Methos," Cassandra said quietly. "Is he always so... So..." "Reticent about receiving accolades?" Daniel asked. She'd been thinking relaxed and open, but... "I suppose," she nodded. "Just the obsequious hero worship stuff," Daniel told her honestly. "Adam really hates it when they do that." How very odd, Cassandra thought as Daniel showed her where to find her pack. She'd have thought Methos would be glad to have a powerful group of aliens in his thrall. Especially ones that seemed willing to do almost anything to please him for the sake of his father's memory. "Okay, campers!" O'Neill called as he joined them in the gate room. "Let's get this show on the road!" Another strange one, she thought as she caught sight of Cierdwyn in the company of several junior officers, dressed and waiting to go through the gate. She waved to her and Cierdwyn smiled back. Then the gate was open and it was time to go. Daniel offered her his arm and she took it -- along with another leap of faith. *** "Nice rock," O'Neill complimented sarcastically, grimacing at the hard baked dirt of the plain. "Could use a little scrub brush though. Maybe a lake." "I don't know," Methos said, looking around as Jacob quickly led everyone away from the Stargate. "Sorta reminds me of Mesopotamia after the collapse of the great city-states." He paused and whipped his head around, staring up at the darkening sky. "Twelve moons is a bit much though." "Too bright for skulking," O'Neill nodded as the Tok'ra stopped abruptly, waiting for everyone to gather into a tight group. "Actually, I was thinking more about the poetry involved. Is one moon's face better than another for comparing a woman's features to, and would she get really angry if she didn't like that particular moon?" O'Neill stared at him sideways. "Sometimes I wonder about you, Pierson." "Really? What?" "Just get over here and join the circle of love!" He snagged Methos by the collar and yanked him close. "Why, Jack, I didn't know you--" The transport rings shot up from the ground and an instant later they were standing in a brightly lit cave. "...cared." A strong arm suddenly wrapped around Methos' neck, pulling his head down. "Be a good minion," O'Neill murmured quietly. "And stop performing for the crowd. The focus of this mission isn't your personal life." Methos flushed as he realized he'd been doing just that. Did some part of him really believe he could eventually get Cassandra to like him? He nodded a silent apology and Jack released him. The most he could conceivably hope for would be tolerance on her part. And yet, he hadn't really been any more sarcastic than he usually was when they were in the field. He had in fact been less. Playful cute, Alexa had once called it. No wonder O'Neill had called him on it. Methos straightened, tugging at his jacket and sneaked a glance at Cassandra. This time she wasn't looking at him, but at the stone walls of the underground base and occasionally glancing upward to where the transport rings had disappeared. She must be terrified, Methos thought, watching her fingers plucking at a pocket. A nervous gesture he recalled from her early days in his tent. She'd plucked almost continuously at the ragged edges of the slashes in her robe. Rents made when first Kronos, then he had killed her repeatedly. Eventually they'd frayed so badly he'd searched his stores for some good cloth and had another slave make her a new dress. Once the visible signs of her previous deaths had been removed she'd calmed a bit, though every now and again, usually when she felt stressed, it would reappear. He looked away trying not to feel sorry for her as they followed Jacob down a corridor. Cassandra was a big girl. She could look after herself. Had looked after herself, Methos thought, for more than three thousand years. And that was certainly nothing to laugh at, especially when it came to female Immortals. She was intelligent and cunning with a will to live almost as strong as his own. A good fright would probably serve her well, he decided. At the very least it would keep her adrenaline pumping and her wits sharp when she confronted the Goa'uld. Freya's workroom as Jacob called it was on the other side of the complex. As they made their way toward it the inhabitants of the Tok'ra base paid them little attention, though every so often someone would look up from what they were doing, take one look at Methos and gasp. "Racial memory," Jacob explained at Methos' narrowed glance the first time it happened. "From Inanna's symbiote," the Immortal nodded. Of course they would recognize him just as Selmak originally had. Behind him, Methos heard Cassandra whispering a question to Daniel, but the boy's response was muffled by the stomp of their heavy boots as they made their way along the twisting corridors. He didn't need to wonder what she was asking, nor about Daniel's response. He wasn't sure he liked the notion of Cassandra knowing so much about his past, not even the distant history of his mortal years, but there was little choice. After all, he'd suggested she join this little excursion in the first place. It was a bit late to worry about the consequences now. They turned a final corner and entered the workroom, a large, spacious cavern filled with a variety of odd looking machines and very little in the way of furnishings. "Hello, Colonel O'Neill. Dr. Jackson," Freya nodded, greeting the others in turn. Methos merely raised an eyebrow in her direction and she took a step back, putting a rather wide work surface between them. Jacob frowned in disapproval at him but got on with the business at hand. "Freya, this is Cassandra. She believes she may be able to help us with Kabra'kan." The two women seemed to take the measure of each other then Freya smiled. "Welcome, Cassandra," her soft measured tones were warm and friendly. "The Tok'ra are grateful for any assistance you can provide. I was told," she went on. "That you have some ability to both project thought and modulate your voice to obtain cooperation from your subjects. I will, of course, monitor you during the procedure." "No way!" O'Neill interrupted furiously. "That was not part of the deal, Jacob." "But, Jack," Carter began to respond. "Don't even bother," O'Neill cut him off. "It ain't happening, Jacob." "But to keep such an ability to yourselves," Freya complained, "would give you a tactical advantage." "Which you've always had over us," O'Neill angrily retorted. "Live with it!" "If I might speak," Cassandra coolly interposed herself into the growing argument and the heated discussion paused. "Whatever power I have is mine to do with as I please. And I do not please to share it with just anyone. It is dangerous and easily abused. It remains with me." Jack grinned widely at her. "Good choice. Hear that, Jacob?" "But if something should happen to you it would be lost," Freya pleaded and Cassandra gave her a pitying look. "I've lived for three thousand years in a world more dangerous than you can possibly imagine. Nothing will happen. There will be no monitoring. Is that clear?" Freya pressed her lips together and nodded. "The holding cell is this way," she said, moving toward the far side of the room where a pair of guards stood outside what was little more than a deep indentation in the rock. Inside, a blond, blue-eyed Goa'uld was pacing angrily, dressed in the clothes of a Maya warrior -- a simple pleated thigh length tunic heavily embroidered at the collar. At their approach he paused, sneering at them until his eyes came to rest on a familiar face. "The shol'va Teal'c," Kabra'kan rumbled, his eyes glowing bright. "Come to gloat, traitor?" "Gloating is for children," the Jaffa smiled back. "The infliction of pain and suffering on one's enemies a more appropriate pastime for adults." "Torture will gain you nothing," Kabra'kan promised. "It shall gain me your distress. That will be enough." The Goa'uld's face became a mask of fury. "We are gods! You cannot destroy us! We shall have you, shol'va. Then we shall destroy the Tau'ri world." "Who writes his dialogue?" Methos' squinted at the seemingly deranged Goa'uld. "Are they always this delusional?" "Pretty much," Daniel responded. "No sense of proportion." Kabra'kan quieted to stare thoughtfully at Methos. "You are not afraid, little man?" "Of course I'm afraid," Methos told him, mockingly gentle as he let his eyes go dead and expressionless. "I'm terrified the Tok'ra will dispose of your worthless corpse before I can skin you alive. I really do want a matching belt to go with my Goa'uld hide boots. And if you've any friends at home," he smiled affably as Kabra'kan stepped back. "I should very much like to meet them. Another bill fold and wallet set would be nice, too." Cassandra gave him a horrified stare. Beside her, O'Neill whispered quietly in her ear. "Remember the tape I showed you, Cassandra. He's softening up the parasite for you, not the man." "I do not need his help!" she hissed then turned to Freya. "I will speak with the prisoner now," Cassandra ordered. "Lower the shield," Freya nodded and they slowly moved inside. "Hello, Kabra'kan," Cassandra began, her voice soft and soothing. "You are feeling very tired. Sit, Kabra'kan. And relax." The Goa'uld faltered and reached for the chair behind him. "That's right," she went on as Kabra'kan sank heavily down. "Make yourself comfortable and we'll have a nice little chat." Beside her, Jack nodded slowly. "Cool." Chapter 16 "That went well," Daniel said to no one in particular as SG-1 was left to themselves in a waiting room after the interrogation. "Up until the point we found out we need to bring the snakehead with us," Jack muttered, visibly repelled by the notion. Still, he turned to Cassandra and offered his thanks. "You did a great job, ma'am. We really appreciate it." Daniel frowned. "He never thanks me like that," he whispered to Methos, taking a seat beside the Immortal, who shrugged. "She's a lot prettier than you are, Danny. A man's got to have his priorities in order." Jackson only stared at him then shook his head as if divesting himself of a particularly irritating thought. "You weren't serious, were you?" he suddenly asked. "About what?" Methos queried, leaning back against the comfortable warmth of the stone wall. Daniel grimaced. "About taking only Kabra'kan's head with us." Methos gave him an amused glance as Samantha joined them. "I was only offering our fearless leader another option. We need Kabra'kan's brainwave pattern to get past Zipak'na's security, not the rest of his body. And it is medically possible to remove the head and keep it alive just long enough to suit our purposes. Safer too. I'm not looking forward to traveling anywhere with a dangerous enemy for company." "None of us are," the major commented. "But we might need him alive at some point." "True," Methos agreed with a heartfelt sigh. "Too bad an interrogation is only as good as the interrogator." "And we can't be certain we asked all the right questions," Carter nodded. They were interrupted when Jacob entered looking fairly annoyed as he delivered the news. "We have a go," he told them. "Unfortunately, Zipak'na's gate is too heavily guarded to just walk through. And the closest gate with a Tok'ra ship in the vicinity is three days out from our destination." "If that's the best you can do," Jack sighed resignedly. "One more thing," Jacob said as Selmak came to the fore. "The Tok'ra only agree to this mission on condition that we share any technical advantages gained. Any weapons retrieved will be considered common property." "That was the deal," the colonel easily agreed. "Excellent," Selmak nodded. "We leave immediately." O'Neill turned to the others as he grabbed his pack. "Come on boys and girls, the school bus is waiting." They headed for the gate, Methos giving Jack a small knowing smile. The colonel nodded shortly in response. It was well they understood each other, the Immortal thought. The Tok'ra wouldn't be pleased, but he was. *** "What the hell is that?" O'Neill asked, staring at the narrow metallic coffin shaped thing sitting on the ground when they reached the other side of the gate. "It is a stasis canister," Teal'c explained. "Many dangerous prisoners are transported inside such devices, O'Neill. A most useful method, do you not think?" "Well, yeah," he nodded. "Just... Keep an eye on it, Teal'c. Damn thing gives me the creeps." "As you wish," the Jaffa nodded, moving to stand guard. Jacob gave him an easygoing grin. "Relax, Jack. It's perfectly safe. And it'll keep Kabra'kan out of our hair until we arrive." "Whatever," O'Neill muttered, looking around to get his bearings. The place was eerily silent but for the wind whistling through the monumental ruins of the ancient city surrounding them. "So when does the train get in?" "It'll be a while yet," Jacob responded. "You folks might as well get comfortable. Our connecting flight is a refitted cargo ship engaged in passive intercept of Goa'uld communications. Not one of the fastest ships we have, but it'll do the trick." "What is this place anyway?" O'Neill asked, frowning as he held his weapon ready. "Is it safe?" "Safe enough," Jacob nodded, moving to sit on one the dozen or so shattered stone blocks which littered the area. "The Tok'ra excavated this site a few centuries ago," he went on as Samantha and Cassandra joined him. "The planet's pretty much dead, except for some lower life forms. Animals and insects mostly." "Goa'uld?" O'Neill asked. "Nah," Jacob shook his head. "According to our experts this place is nearly a quarter of a million years old." "Pretty well preserved," Methos said, impressed. "Who were they?" Daniel asked as he found some carvings not yet erased by time on a nearby wall. "We think it was a colony founded by the Ancients," Jacob shrugged. "We're not sure, but the Tok'ra have come across similar ruins before. Same age, same kind of destruction. Near as we can figure it was probably some kind of intra-galactic war." "It was," Methos said, squinting into the distance wearing a distracted look. "I seem to remember reading...something," he shook his head. "It's gone now." Jacob gave him an assessing stare. "If you don't mind my asking, Methos, just how much of your time with Tok'ra do you remember?" "Not much," he admitted. "Bits and pieces, this and that. It was all so long ago," he sighed and found a seat on one of the stones across from where Jacob sat. "I remember the nursery mostly." "The nursery?" Samantha asked surprised. "I spent a lot of years there," he grinned, amused by her shock. "Why shouldn't I remember it?" "No reason," she gave a half shrug. "It just seems...odd." "To you," Methos agreed. "But not to someone born say, even a hundred years ago in a fairly wealthy household. Children stayed in the nursery until they were young adults. Often until they were sixteen or seventeen before they were sent away to school." "So what do you remember about it?" she asked with a smile. Methos narrowed his eyes trying to picture the place. "I remember a garden. A rock garden, actually. At least, that's how I thought of it. But I think it was more of a playground." He absently held out his arms as if to encompass something. "There were these huge stone carvings. Representations of animals and such. And they rocked. That's what I remember most -- the swaying motion as I rode them and how they never fell down no matter how far I tipped them over." "Weebles," Jack stated succinctly, startling Methos from his reverie. "Weevils?" Methos gave him an odd look. "What do they have to do with anything?" "Not weevils. Weebles. 'Weebles wobble, but they don't fall down.'" Samantha's eyes lit up. "I remember Weebles. I had a whole set." "Everyone had a set," Daniel interjected before turning back to his exploring. "They were pervasive," O'Neill added with a grimace. "If they'd been aliens they'd have conquered the planet." Methos looked from one to the other. "What the hell are Weebles?!" "Weren't they a popular children's toy?" Cassandra suddenly asked Jacob, drawing a look of surprise from Methos. "Very popular," Jacob nodded. "Although Sam preferred Punchy the Clown. He didn't fall over either. She was an aggressive little thing," he added proudly. "Dad!" Methos laughed. "Thanks, Jacob! Humiliation shared is humiliation halved!" The other man chuckled oddly and nodded to himself. "Selmak insists I apologize immediately, Methos. Humiliating the son of Tok'ra is unacceptable behavior even for me." "Someone should have told that to Tok'ra," Methos grinned ruefully. "Might have saved me a lot of grief." "You looked most distinguished," Teal'c insisted. "As I said at the time, baldness denotes a noble visage. I was most impressed." Cassandra's eyes widened and she suddenly turned her face away though her shoulders shook helplessly. "Well I'm glad you all find me so entertaining," Methos said petulantly, glaring at her back. "Pierson," Jack said quietly, the warning in his tone obvious. Methos scowled then rolled his eyes in disgust, getting up to join Daniel for another look at the ruins and ignoring the rest of the conversation. Surprised by his easy acquiescence Cassandra watched him go. Twice now she'd seen O'Neill reprimand Methos -- and in such a way that it established the colonel's absolute right to offer such correction. And by his actions, or inaction in this case, Methos had openly acknowledged that O'Neill had the right to do so. This was not what she had ever expected. Not even Kronos had dared to openly chastise this particular Horseman. She stared thoughtfully at O'Neill, considering the colonel carefully. He did not strike her as the least bit foolish and bore himself as though he carried wisdom gained of hard won knowledge both tested and tempered like fine steel. He appeared to be honest, affable and generally courteous to those under his protection. Strong-willed and focused on his goals such a man would allow nothing to interfere with his ultimate objectives. Good qualities for a man given command over the fate of many nations, Cassandra decided. Certainly not a man to be taken in, even by the likes of Methos. Unless, of course, Methos had changed. Again the idea startled her, just as it had the first time she'd discussed the subject with Cierdwyn. Then again, perhaps what Ramirez had said was true. That Methos had not so much changed into his current persona as changed back. Had the Horseman in all his terrible splendor been the aberration and not the sum total of this man's many lives? Cassandra shied away from the idea, too fearful of what this might do to her perceptions. Of herself. Of Methos. Of a three thousand year old system of belief. Confronting her anger, guilt and shame was one thing. Confronting Methos was quite another. With a silent shake of her head she put the matter aside, hearing the voice of reason gently chide her. It would have to be done sometime, she heard Cierdwyn's soft admonition in her head. Perhaps, she responded, trying to quell her fear at the notion. But not now. Now I am alone with my most feared enemy, dependent upon mortal soldiers who know what I am, waiting on a strange planet for an alien space ship to take me to another world. I think that is enough for one day. Part Three Chapter 17 The days passed slowly as the interminable flight towards Zipak'na's stronghold took its toll on Cassandra though none of the others seemed to be overly affected by the journey. To be sure they were sometimes bored, but once they'd all gotten settled in, packs had been opened and pastimes brought out for the amusement of everybody. She'd come back from making her final ablutions for the night to find a pile of books, tapes, CDs, bits of wood and tools for whittling, some quick dry casting clay and a small chess set neatly stacked on one of the extra sleeping shelves. There was even a small mound of candy and snacks -- enough to give six children bellyaches if eaten at once. And everyone was expected to simply avail themselves of what they wanted when they wanted it. The sight had made Cassandra smile as she recalled the shared generosity of village life in places that were often no more than rather large extended families. That is until she realized Methos was a part of it. Now, toward the end of their journey Cassandra was feeling more lost and confused than she had since the deaths of the other Horsemen. It was...unnerving to see Methos interact so easily and with such obvious pleasure with the members of SG-1. With an internal sigh of revulsion at her own inability to make a decision regarding her nemesis and his possible motives she went to the pile and snatched up a new book, tossing the old one down. She'd been eager at first to read one of Dr. Jackson's tomes on Maya social structure, now it was simply annoying. She glanced at the title, discovering it was an obscure collection of philosophical essays as she found a place to read not far from where O'Neill was hand molding little clay figurines. More Weebles, Cassandra thought with a tiny shake of her head. Nearby, Teal'c was doing them in wood. The previous night they'd each presented a set to Methos, who'd seemed delighted though he'd tossed off a few snide remarks about finding them more adult games to play. To which they'd responded with equal vigor and in mockingly parental tones. Most unnerving, she thought again as O'Neill suddenly reached into a pocket, pulled out a lollipop and offered it to her. With a murmur of thanks Cassandra took it wondering why she felt surprised a moment later when the usually acerbic colonel silently tossed one to each member of his command. His aim was excellent and he caught Methos, sprawled on the floor playing chess with Samantha, square in the face. Hiding a smile, Cassandra was again surprised by the old one's look of mild irritation mixed with genuine fondness as he retrieved the candy and popped it in his mouth. Stranger and stranger, she thought, returning to her book after unwrapping her own lollipop and putting it in her mouth. Could it be possible that Methos truly enjoyed the company of O'Neill and the others? Were they indeed as friendly as they appeared to be? It seemed so, but Cassandra had long ago learned to distrust outward appearances. Especially when it came to Methos. With an inward sigh, she put such thoughts aside as unproductive. The wisest course of action would be to wait until she had time for another session with Cierdwyn. But she had often been more passionate than wise, she admitted ruefully. Why should now be any different? She turned to the first essay and settled back to enjoy the mental stimulus. Then, about halfway through the first dialectic, Cassandra turned the page and nearly gasped aloud in shock. Near the top, someone had jotted a comment in the neat hand of a court scribe -- a hand she instantly recognized. Cassandra glanced up hurriedly casting her eyes downward as Methos shifted positions and gazed her way. She took a deep breath, returning to the book and silently refused to be afraid. So what if it was one of his things? He was not her master to complain, especially since he'd put it out with the rest. And she was curious about what he might have to say when he thought no one else could read his ramblings. Of course she might miss a word here or there given the gap in their ages, since Methos seemed to be in the same habit as she oftentimes was, using words and phrases from dozens of different languages to express himself with exacting clarity. 'An interesting idea,' the first note said. 'Though not terribly sound in practice.' Cassandra read the passage to which it referred and oddly enough was forced to agree with Methos' assessment. She went on, skimming through the text itself and pausing to read the notes as they appeared. Comments like 'Exactly so!' or 'Ramirez would have agreed,' were interspersed with observations such as, 'Too simplistic. More worldly experience required,' and 'Easy to pontificate when you have a choice. Try it sometime when Damocles stands above your neck!' She raised an eyebrow at that last notation and reread the section on which it was based. It was an argument on why the morally lazy man chose to do evil when the choice for good offered no greater hardship than a little effort. Was Methos saying he'd been without choice? Or was he simply justifying past moral failings? Cassandra mentally reviewed what she'd learned of his past in recent days. Not only what she'd been told by Ramirez, but her several conversations with Daniel, who of the group had spent more time with the cagey ancient in recent years than anyone here. It had shocked her to discover that Methos' past with the Horsemen was not only known, but accepted by his teammates. Not, she'd been grateful to learn as something in which they could all take pride, but as a deviation caused by terrible circumstances and emotional trauma. A time of anger and desperation by a man without the will to run and no belief in any sanctuary he might find when he got there. It sounded all too familiar to Cassandra. Her own life since escaping the Horsemen had been fraught with danger and despair almost as often as it had been filled with joy. But what life wasn't when you were Immortal? She looked back at the page thinking on something Cierdwyn had once said. That the Horsemen had been no different in their warring than the Romans, the Vikings, or any other group which might have fancied themselves conquerors. The only difference being that while the mortals had raided and died leaving their offspring to continue the process, the Horsemen had been individuals moving across the generations. And if Cassandra could find it in her heart to forgive the descendants of these nations, who were as different from their ancestors as night and day, then it behooved her to examine the possibility that an Immortal might also change given enough time. Having accepted that premise Cassandra now had to wonder just how it applied to Methos. Again she had Cierdwyn's experience and wisdom to draw on. Methos had treated her no differently than any man of that age would treat a woman taken in battle, and a damn sight better than many Immortals would have. She did still have her head after all. True, he had repeatedly killed her to make her obedient, but she had very swiftly learned to obey. And if Ramirez was correct about Methos' first teacher then he'd done no more than train her in the same way he'd been trained. She did not have to like it. She merely had to accept the fact that it had happened and that Methos had done it -- he being a man of his times. Which brought to mind another question Cassandra had not wanted to consider. That while he, and she for that matter, had both been of those times what right had she to judge him using the morality of this age? Was Methos to have come up with the novel idea that slavery was evil when no one else at that time had ever thought it anything more than a simple fact of life? No doubt he had ascribed to the very same tenet everyone else had. That it was always better to be the master than the slave. And having had slaves of her own at various points in her life she really had no cause to despise him for that. What bothered Cassandra and she knew it were her own perceptions of the man. Yes, he had been hard on her at first. And yes, he had taken her against her will and taught her to enjoy it. But, damn it! he should have been better than that. His acts of cruelty in battle had not carried over into his tent once she had stopped fighting him. In fact, he had sometimes been inordinately kind. She suddenly recalled a time when she had tripped over one of the more friendly camp cats that had wandered into Methos' tent. Unable to catch her balance, she'd struck the table which had made the dinner tray fly up, the contents of which had landed all over both of them. And Methos had laughed. Laughed until he couldn't breath and tears ran from his eyes. At the time she'd thought him mad. But he hadn't beaten her, hadn't even chastised her for not looking where she was going. Instead, he'd laughed even more when the rest of the camp cats had suddenly appeared by the dozens to lick the food off everything in sight. Cassandra pressed her lips together trying not to smile as she pushed away the image of Methos in near feline repose content to be bathed within an inch of his life by the scruffy, flea bitten things. So, it was clearly the dichotomy of the man which disturbed her thoughts -- what Methos should have been as opposed to what he was. All right, she thought sighing softly as she closed the book and laid it aside. So there had been something there for him to work with. Some core of the man which she had seen beneath the barbaric exterior that had once been decent and kind. But did Methos recognize what he had done to her? To his victims and their families over the centuries? Did he feel sorrow or regret? Or had he simply moved on, supposing that as long as he kept to his books and his studies harming no one else, that done was done and he really ought to forgive and forget even if they could not? Cassandra couldn't answer these questions. Only Methos could. And she knew she wasn't yet ready for that. She needed to talk with Cierdwyn first. To perhaps arrange a meeting at some future time. Not to rail at the man over past injustices -- she had no desire left to do that. She could see now that such pursuits would be pointless and counterproductive to her own recovery. But to find closure at last. To seek out that last bit of knowledge that would allow her to sleep without the nightmare that he might come back. Or that some other woman was suffering at Methos' hands and she was powerless to stop her anguish. If she could feel safe in the knowledge that the last of the Horsemen no longer walked the earth stalking his prey then perhaps she could find rest at last. But that would have to wait, Cassandra thought as Jacob entered the crew quarters to announce they were within sight of their goal. Now was not the time to worry about personal growth. Chapter 18 "Looks like Zippy's been playing with his new toys," O'Neill commented, dryly, as they flew over the ghostly silent buildings of what had once been a Maya city. They'd come around the far side of the planet, flying low and hoping to avoid the sensor grid of Zipak'na's ship which sat parked above the remains of a step pyramid. Below, corpses lay bloated in the streets and swarms of insects blanketed everything like a dark, seething carpet which pulsed and writhed obscenely. "Doesn't make any sense," Samantha shook her head, staring out at the devastation. "Why destroy your own world?" "Arrogance," Methos said quietly. "Zipak'na had no idea what those weapons could do, so he tested them on the nearest inhabited planet. The one right beneath him must have looked pretty good." "Sounds about right for a Goa'uld," Daniel nodded, turning away from the sight. "Probably salivating over the possibilities right now," O'Neill added. "Anybody wonder who's at the top of his Christmas list?" "The Tau'ri would be the most likely choice," Teal'c rumbled softly. "He will see them as the cause of his disgrace among the System Lords. "More than that," Methos lips thinned in response. "If he succeeds he'll gain prestige and allies. Entry back into the hallowed halls and highest ranks of the gods. It's a threat they can't ignore." Cassandra tapped O'Neill on the shoulder and he turned to face her. "I thought you said Earth was a protected planet? Won't an attack by Zipak'na constitute a violation of the treaty?" "It is," the colonel nodded. "And normally it would. But Zippy's outside the chain of command now. An exile with a death sentence on him." "Indeed," Teal'c agreed. "The Asgard would not view the System Lords as culpable. And Zipak'na may now feel that he is strong enough to defend even against the Asgard." "Even if he doesn't launch an attack on Earth," Jacob interjected from the pilot's chair. "Like Methos said, the System Lords can't help but pay attention. The power balance will have shifted." "We screw up your plans again?" O'Neill asked, sounding a little too cheerful. The Tok'ra frowned. "Not yet, but you're getting there. We've worked very hard to stabilize things so we can infiltrate the major players. But you guys just keep shaking things up and that makes it difficult to plan ahead." "Sorry," O'Neill responded, not the least bit recalcitrant. "Love to help you out, but as I recall the Tok'ra haven't told us what their plan is." "It's fluid," Methos said with contempt. "Or was that Inanna's plan? The one where you infiltrate here, collect information there, and passively destabilize while sabotaging any major alliances." Jacob's head shot around and he stared in amazement. "Don't be a fool, Jacob. Selmak," Methos went on scornfully. "The Tok'ra were Inanna's tool from the beginning. You were never meant to overthrow the Goa'uld. Just keep them busy and out of her hair. And if you had succeeded while she lived she'd have destroyed you as well, once you'd served your purpose. Mother was a clever woman. Don't forget she murdered Tok'ra and in one fell swoop annihilated his forces. And Father was no slouch when it came to planning," he added bitterly. The Tok'ra's eyes glowed for an instant and Selmak nodded. "I will remember that, Methos. May we hope to have your unique insight in further discussions? I am certain the Council would be pleased to consider whatever strategies you have in mind." "No," he said bluntly and looked to Jack. "Someone else owns the exclusive rights." "We are nearing the landing site," Teal'c informed them. "Gear up, people," O'Neill clapped his hands. "Oh, and somebody get that Goa'uld out of storage." *** They approached from the south, carefully making their way through the rain forest. It was eerily silent, as if waiting breathlessly for another attack. "O'Neill?" Jack frowned and reached for his radio. "What are you still doing here, Jacob?" The older man was supposed to be pulling back to wait for them out of range. "Just taking off now. Everything all right?" He looked at Cassandra and the compliant Kabra'kan marching blithely along beside her. "Just fine. I'll give you a call when the rates go down. O'Neill out." He cradled his gun and moved up the line to Methos' position. "I take it she hasn't always been able to do that. Cassandra," he added at the Immortal's vaguely confused stare. "No," Methos shook his head, glancing back. "If she had I wouldn't be here." O'Neill nodded thoughtfully and Methos smiled in amusement. "Don't worry, Jack. Cassandra's no danger to us. If she wanted power she'd have long since had it by now." "I guess," the colonel nodded, roughly wiping his brow. "She seems to be handling all this pretty well, though." "Yeah," Methos agreed, ducking under some branches. "I shouldn't be surprised, but I am. The last time I saw Cassandra she threatened to tear my head off with her bare hands. And she meant it. Cierdwyn must be really good. Maybe I should make an appointment." "Too late," O'Neill smirked. "The time for that was before you signed up." "Don't remind me," Methos commented snidely. "I'm already ruing the day." The terrain changed suddenly as they reached the outskirts of the ziggurat and Methos, who'd taken point, signaled to the others to wait as he hunkered down, pulled out his field glasses and surveyed the area. "Seems quiet," he murmured to O'Neill as the colonel silently eased in beside him. "They must all be inside the ship." He shook his head and put away his binoculars. "Lousy security." "What's to secure?" O'Neill asked rhetorically. "Everybody's dead." "It's sheer arrogance," Methos snorted. "They obviously don't consider anyone but their own kind to be a threat. I think I'm insulted." "You would be," O'Neill muttered then quietly gathered everyone together to discuss the situation. "Daniel," he looked to the archaeologist. "There any way in other than the front door?" Jackson could only shrug. "The temple appears to be a facsimile of the Castillo at Chichen Itza, or vice versa, anyway," he added looking slightly befuddled. "But there are variations. This Castillo is more massive. The width of the base, the height of the superstructure and the decorative--" "Shut up, Daniel," O'Neill ordered, gritting his teeth. "Just answer the question. Is there another way in?" "No." O'Neill stared at him. "No? That's it? Just, no?" "No," Daniel reiterated. "Not if it follows the typical Maya pattern. Their temples were built for specific religious functions, not everyday use. But as I was trying to tell you, this one appears to be slightly different from the Maya temples we do know of and that may be directly related to the fact that a Goa'uld actively uses this one." "And that would mean?" O'Neill asked tiredly, looking as though he'd rather be anywhere else. "A back door maybe?" "Thank you." Jack turned to Cassandra. "Ask Zippy's little brother if there's a back door, please." Smiling, she did as he requested though the answer was sufficiently vague to be annoying. Maybe. He didn't know. More importantly, he didn't care. Gods had better things to do with their time then check the exits apparently. O'Neill sighed in complete disgust. "Anybody else got an idea." "There might be some caves around here," Methos suggested. "The terrain is similar to that of Guatemala." "Thanks, Pierson," O'Neill deadpanned. "I was trying not to think about that. Wanna help me build another road?" Methos squinted, frowning confusedly then shook his head and went on. "What I mean is that when I was there, way back when, a local guide took me into one of the temples through an underground passage. The temple itself was immense and buried under the jungle, but the way in was clear. He also claimed the god had, in days gone by, often set up housekeeping there. Not to interfere with the sanctity of the temple precinct, the locals would bring food and gifts to the threshold of his lair whence the servants of the god would appear to collect their offerings -- seemingly out of thin air. I can't be certain because all I had was an oil lamp, but there was a circular design of some sort laid into the ceiling. It could have housed a set of transport rings." "That would make sense," Daniel nodded. "Only the god's house would need a delivery entrance. The other temples would just be copies of the exterior." "It seems we have a plan," O'Neill nodded appreciatively. "Teal'c, take Daniel and see if you can find that back door. Once we're inside we'll let drool boy here use his head. After that, we'll play it by ear. Anyone else? Questions? Words of caution? Good advice? Stock tips?" Cassandra raised a hand. "What if Kabra'kan's brain wave pattern won't get us past their security field?" "Good question," O'Neill grinned. "Hear that, campers? Somebody's paying attention." The others said nothing, since his response had been solely for Cassandra's benefit. They already knew the drill. "We retreat, Cassandra. Meet up with Jacob and try to approach this from a different angle, hopefully. We're here for reconnaissance. If we have the opportunity to get in and complete the mission we'll do it. If not," he shrugged. "No hard feelings, we just back out." She nodded her understanding, looking somewhat relieved, then settled back with Major Carter to keep an eye on the Goa'uld. Nearby, O'Neill and Methos settled in to watch and wait while Daniel and Teal'c were out searching. "Do me a favor," Jack leaned close and spoke quietly to Methos. "Stick to Zippy's brother like glue. No matter what happens I want him dead before we leave here." Methos considered the request for a moment. "You don't want to try and save the host?" "Trust me on this one," O'Neill whispered sadly. "Whoever that poor guy was, he wants us to kill him." Methos swallowed hard. For thousands of years Kabra'kan's host had lived in psychological isolation watching crime after crime committed by his hands, seeing others reacting with fear and horror to his face. Methos could do more than imagine it. He'd lived it -- and without the excuse Kabra'kan's host had. He nodded once, accepting the charge. "He dies today, O'Neill. You have my word on it." *** They made their way, carefully, down the tunnel. O'Neill and Methos in the lead, Teal'c and Carter bringing up the rear. The passage itself seemed primitive, but eventually they reached the section directly beneath the temple and the floor turned to well worn stone lit by torches. A few minutes later they saw it. A sparkling blue- green energy veil offering death to any who tried to pass through it. Unlike other Goa'uld security barriers SG-1 had encountered this one didn't prevent entry. Quite the opposite. Anyone could pass through it. Getting to the other side alive was the problem. It was designed to scan for brainwaves. Those it recognized left its grip unharmed, those it didn't might be left dead or worse. Methos peered through the veil. "Looks like the rings are just beyond there," he twitched his chin in the general direction. "Good," O'Neill nodded, turning to Cassandra. "You're up." "Come, Kabra'kan," she said, leading the Goa'uld past the others. "You have important prisoners. You must see Lord Zipak'na. We have information he needs. You want to lower the security shield." "Yes," the Goa'uld murmured, moving forward. He slid easily through the barrier pausing on the other side. "Lower the shield," Cassandra repeated and Kabra'kan turned with a smile. He barked an order and the shield dissolved. Then all hell broke loose as he grabbed Cassandra's arm. "Shield up! Jaffa, kree!" he shouted, dragging her toward the rings. Almost instantly O'Neill started firing and the others, with one exception, dropped back to cover him as guards suddenly appeared through the rings rushing the corridor. Gritting his teeth Methos judged their chances. Not good, he thought and flung himself into the barrier, unwilling to let the Goa'uld have Cassandra. Fire seared his mind as Methos hung suspended in the veil for what felt like an eternity. Blind, deaf and mercifully unconscious he fell to the floor a moment later, dying quickly as his brain forgot to tell his lungs to breath. Several yards away, Jack cursed silently as more Jaffa appeared, firing easily through the shield. No way were they going to make it if they didn't leave now, he decided. "Let's get the hell out!" he shouted, offering cover fire as one by one they pulled back. The corridor grew silent as the fighting moved well beyond the barrier and out into the rain forest. "This one is dead, my lord," a guard informed him after checking the nearby corpse. "Of course he is," Kabra'kan grinned widely at Cassandra, shoving her toward the remaining Jaffa. "Gag her," he ordered. "And bring her to my laboratory." "Yes, my lord!" The Goa'uld turned to leave, caught in mid-step as the corpse which lay sprawled on the floor suddenly rose up, drawing a wicked looking sword as it raced toward him. Kabra'kan whirled in alarm as the Jaffa brought up their weapons, firing simultaneously until once again the so-called corpse fell to the floor. Kabra'kan came forward only after his guards had thoroughly disarmed the body. He stood over it, waiting patiently for any new sign of life. And there it was, he thought a moment later, brows rising in wonder and avarice as the lips parted, the lungs inhaled and the eyes suddenly opened wide. "Damn," Methos muttered, staring coolly up at Kabra'kan. "Jack's going to be so disappointed." Chapter 19 "What the hell happened back there?!" O'Neill demanded, crouching beside Carter beneath the leafy canopy of a tree. They'd avoided several search parties already thanks to a sudden downpour which had washed away any trace of their passing. Now it was getting dark and he needed to make some decisions -- quickly. "I don't know, sir," she responded, wiping the rain dripping from her hair out of her eyes. "Cassandra must have lost control of Kabra'kan at some point. But when exactly it happened and whether it was voice control or telepathic control I can't be certain." Jack grimaced, but didn't comment on the fact that what she'd just told him was rather obvious. Then again, as Methos would have said, if he already knew the answer to his question why bother asking? Damn it! he complained in silence. What had Methos been thinking going after Cassandra like that? It was going to take more than just a lucky break to get her out. And Kabra'kan knew what she was capable of. Knew by now what Methos was capable of if Jack was right and leaping through the shield had in fact killed the Immortal. The Goa'uld would want them both now. He was absolutely certain of that. All right, he decided, I'll worry about that later. He signaled for Teal'c and Daniel to join them. "We need to get some back up which means we need to get to the gate," he started. "What about Jacob?" Daniel asked. O'Neill frowned. "Kabra'kan knows about Jacob. Our best bet is for you and Carter to go back and bring some help. Lots of it. And fast." "Sir?" Carter asked. "He'll be taking them apart, Major," O'Neill looked her in the eye. "Piece by piece if he has to." She drew a deep breath and nodded. "What did you have in mind, Colonel?" *** Methos paced the confines of the tiny holding cell occasionally pausing to peer anxiously down the long empty corridor outside the shielded door. The view wasn't much, just a portion of Kabra'kan's sarcophagus and the edge of the bed chamber beyond, but it was enough to draw him back time after time. Once Cassandra had been gagged they'd been taken via the rings to the Goa'uld's laboratory only a short distance away from where Methos found himself imprisoned now. Her look had been one of desperate fear as he was dragged off. It tore at Methos, reminding him of the look on her face when Kronos had demanded possession of her. But he was even more helpless now than he had been then to do anything for her. And unlike Kronos, he didn't think Kabra'kan was interested in hurting her. Cassandra was far too valuable alive. He'd want to study her gift as the Tok'ra had and make use of her talents if he couldn't find a way to duplicate the process. More to the point, he didn't know she was Immortal and that might keep him from harming her at all. The heavy sound of boots marching up the corridor alerted him to company. A pity, he thought absently, that the holding cell was wide open, providing absolutely no cover. But you worked with what you had. Patience, Methos told himself as Kabra'kan appeared with a shell- shocked Cassandra and a pair of guards. They ordered him back, threatening him with their staffs as they quickly lowered the shield and shoved her inside. Methos caught her before she fell as the shield went up again, staring back at the smug Goa'uld, who merely smiled before turning to march back down the corridor with his guards. He hurriedly released Cassandra and went to the door, nodding to himself as he watched Kabra'kan stop at the sarcophagus and the Jaffa depart. The creature had been without its healing device for several days now. It would need to rest. He didn't know for how long, but it would give them time to talk before the real fun started. He turned to Cassandra, who sat with her legs drawn up and her back against the far wall. She'd lost her jacket and as he looked her over finally noticed the thin gold collar she now wore. He opened his mouth to ask if she was all right then felt his throat close up tight. Good god, he suddenly realized, in the three days they'd been together he hadn't spoken a single word to her. Jack's admonition not to interact with Cassandra at all must have been stronger than he thought. Methos swallowed hard and tried to think of something to say, anything to break the ice as she stared back at him. Quickly coming to the very same conclusion he had. Her eyes widened as she realized their predicament, absently rubbing the almost decorative plate at the center of her throat. And there he had it, Methos thought with relief, pulling his best physician's manner out and dusting it off. "Kabra'kan's gone for a little nap," he told her gently. "Let's see if we can get that collar off." *** The diversion had worked. A few small explosions along the ridgeline above the Stargate had offered confusion and drawn away nearly half the Jaffa, while Teal'c and O'Neill firing simultaneously from the forest offered cover and picked several more off. Carter and Daniel had clung to the shadows as much as possible as they made their way to the Stargate. Fortunately, Jaffa rarely considered the area to the rear of the gate to be of any strategic value in a fire fight. And the jungle, as jungles will, had crept fairly close to the wide stone platform on which the Stargate stood. That meant a run of perhaps fifty feet in the open to get to the DHD and another few yards to the gate itself. As Carter laid down more cover fire Daniel hurriedly slapped at the dialing panels, willing the gate glyphs to light more quickly than normal. The wormhole opened and they bounded up the steps leading to it, disappearing ahead of several blasts of staff fire. Behind them, O'Neill and Teal'c beat a hasty retreat into the forest, meeting up at a prearranged location only after they'd each lost their pursuers. Filthy, exhausted and very wet they made their way back to the ridge, hoping like hell to see Daniel and Carter back with reinforcements by morning. Chapter 20 The gate opened to a beautiful sunset vista and Carter pulled up short, staring at the familiar landscape of P3W184. "Daniel! You were supposed to take us to the SGC!" "Uh, technically, no I wasn't," he responded, waving to the Marines guarding the gate as he headed for a jeep. "Jack said to get help and get it fast. The only ones who can make it through that energy field and survive are right here. Not back at the SGC. You coming?" he called as he climbed in and started the engine. "No!" Carter insisted. "The general has to be informed. Now, Daniel!" "Good idea," he nodded, completely oblivious to her ire as he put the jeep in gear. "We split up and get twice as much done in half the time. You tell Hammond and I'll get the ball rolling here. See ya!" Samantha stood openmouthed shaking her head as Jackson drove off. With a sigh of disgust she went to the DHD and started the dialing process again. General Hammond was definitely not going to like this. *** "What do you mean you lost Methos!" Joe Dawson shouted. Daniel backed up a pace. "He was trying to help Cassandra. But that's not important right now." "What do you mean it's not important?!" the irate bartender demanded. "You let the world's oldest Immortal be captured by aliens and you're telling me that's not important? What the hell is wrong with you?!" "What indeed?" a soft voice questioned and the two men turned towards the door. A half dozen Immortals stood there staring at them with the rest filing quickly in behind. Alexander stared questioningly at Dawson. "Are you claiming Adam Pierson is Methos?" "Not claiming," MacLeod answered quietly from somewhere to the rear of the group. "He is Methos." Alexander turned on the Highlander. "You knew?!" "Relax, Alex," Amanda breezed passed him into the canteen. "That's just Methos' way. Trust no one. It's how he survives. What's in a name anyway? I've had dozens of them." "Easy for you to say, but he was my teacher." "And he was very nearly my best man," Robert sounded offended then suddenly looked shocked. "Good lord, I passed over Methos for a major stockholder, I must have been out of my mind!" "What does it matter who he is?" Gina insisted. "He's our friend and he's in trouble." "It's about time," Daniel muttered. "Could we all just focus on the problem?" "Dr. Jackson is correct," Ramirez added, moving deeper into the room to join Amanda. "Methos may be the world's oldest pain in the arse, but he is our pain in the arse. More to the point," he added as the others gathered around to find seats and push together tables. "He is with Cassandra. Those two imprisoned together," he shuddered dramatically. "One or both might already be dead." *** Methos sat with his back to the wall, keeping well away from Cassandra. He'd tried, he really had -- and so had she for that matter, but the reality... Cassandra had nodded permission for him to examine the collar then flinched so hard the instant he'd touched her that he'd quickly backed off. And it wasn't her fault, he knew that. He'd been a doctor long enough to recognize the reaction for what it was. Normally, he'd have spoken calmly and comfortingly to the traumatized patient, waiting for them to find the place within themselves where they would allow his touch, or at least suffer it long enough in order to be treated. But that presupposed he hadn't caused the problem to start. Methos heard her take a long shuddering breath and glanced up. She was still wrapped in on herself, head bowed, long dark hair falling forward to hide her face, but she seemed to be getting her emotions back under control. Ridiculously enough, he felt inordinately proud of Cassandra. She'd obviously worked very hard these past few years to undo the damage he'd done. Of course that wasn't the whole story, he reminded himself. Sometime after she'd runaway, probably within weeks, something in her life had forced her to repress her anger and emotions in order to survive. A defense mechanism he knew far too much about. That would have exacerbated the problem. Given her an unnamed and unrelieved albatross to carry around, much the way he'd carried Ku'ahktar's training until blood, violence and finally Ramirez had helped to purge the last of the anger out. She took another more relaxed breath and Methos lowered his eyes. Cassandra didn't need to be stared at, least of all by him. And Methos refused to delude himself that kind words and a gentle demeanor would somehow help either of them past this. He didn't need another bout of mental anguish courtesy of the Horsemen. But until he and Cassandra were somehow quit of each other neither of them could ever completely put the past behind them. Something Methos wanted more than anything. It was sometime later when he heard Cassandra stirring and looked up, seeing the calm but cautious expression she'd worn for most of this mission. "Try again," she said quietly and Methos nodded, moving slowly back to her side. He waited patiently until she took his hand, moved her heavy hair aside and laid his fingertips along the collar. He was careful not to move too quickly, but after a moment Cassandra seemed to relax and he took that as a signal to start working. "What do you think happened?" Cassandra suddenly asked, surprising Methos. "To your gift?" He saw her head nod abruptly and shrugged. "Sub- harmonics," he answered succinctly, trying for normalcy. "That security shield must vibrate on a level outside of normal hearing. As soon as we got close enough it interfered and broke the connection. Sort of like our Quickenings. I'm sure you've noticed that older Immortals tend to be immune to your voice. We vibrate too, so to speak, but not so's anyone would notice." She seemed to consider his words and he got back to work. "I've only had that happen a few times," Cassandra finally admitted. "But I hadn't considered that age was a factor. The strength of the Quickening..." "Is solely dependent upon age," he interrupted. She looked back, obviously surprised by the certainty in his voice and Methos took the opportunity to shift his examination to the front of the collar. "I'm sure there are other reasons for it to fail since I'm guessing that part of it is telepathic projection. But the Goa'uld have that ability, at least to some degree, which probably allows them to counteract that aspect of the technique. So in this case I think we need to assume an aural causality. Hence, the collar." He tapped the center plate lightly and sighed. "I can't do anything with this," he finally admitted with a shake of his head. "Maybe if I'd seen it being put on," he shrugged. "Sorry, Cassandra, but for now we're just going to have to rely on our wits." "You don't think O'Neill will come?" she asked nervously as Methos shifted to make himself more comfortable on the floor. "Oh, he'll come," Methos smiled reassuringly. "It'll just take some time for him to gather his forces and mount a rescue mission." "Unless he and his people are dead or captured." Methos glared at her. "Don't even think that!" he hissed. "Jack isn't dead. And neither is the rest of the team. They'll come for us when they're able, so just leave it be." The force of his anger surprised Cassandra and she drew back a little, stunned by Methos' vehemence. He crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall stretching his legs out in front of him. "You really care about these mortals, don't you?" she asked quietly. "People, Cassandra. I care about these people. They're my friends," he added more gently. "And I'd like them to be around for more than just a handful of years." They lapsed into silence as Cassandra considered his words. This was not the carefully controlled therapist mediated session she'd originally had in mind, but Fate was often capricious. There was nothing else to do at the moment so why not utilize the time wisely? "What do you think they'll do to us?" she finally asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence. "They?" Methos huffed a laugh as he glanced toward the door. "You mean Kabra'kan. I doubt he's told Zipak'na any of this. The Goa'uld don't share technology or give up personal advantages if they can avoid it. Zipak'na was pretty highly ranked in Heru-ur's service which probably means he had markers from other Goa'uld he could call in. Reason enough for Kabra'kan, a mere scientist, to find it in his heart to rescue him. But I doubt there's any love lost between them. As for what he'll do," Methos shrugged. "He's done what he needs with you for the moment, though I'm sure he'll want to try and find a way to use the Voice on his own. Failing that, he'll want to keep you close. In his mind, you're a veritable fount of power. Think of all System Lords you can bend to his will. As for me," Methos spread his arms and gave her a little bow. "I am the perfect host." Cassandra couldn't help laughing just a little at the irony of that. "Of course," Methos went on, trying his best to maintain the sociable balance they had somehow achieved. "He might want to run a few experiments first. Make sure he's getting a good deal before he trades in the old clunker. It won't be pleasant, but at least I know he can never hope to win." "Is that how you survived?" "Survived what?" he asked curiously. "Ku'ahktar." Methos froze, a look of absolute horror on his face. He forced himself to stay calm, though the idea that Cassandra knew about Ku'ahktar frightened the hell out of him. There was ammunition there if she only knew how to use it. Still, he thought, swallowing hard as he strove to breathe normally, she did not sound as though she was searching for ways to hurt him. She only sounded curious. He opened his mouth to ask how she knew, then closed it as he realized the information could only have come from one source. O'Neill would never tell, of that he was certain. Which meant Ramirez had spoken of it. Methos felt the tension slowly drain from his body at the thought. Ramirez wouldn't have said anything had it not been required. And Methos himself had, in effect, given him permission to do whatever was necessary -- short of using force to bring Cassandra to the SGC. "No," he finally whispered. "With...him...I learned that the only hope was in absolute obedience. Ku'ahktar would always win." "I'm sorry," she said, her eyes filled with of all things pity. "This is painful for you." "Don't be," he told her as he suddenly understood what Cassandra was doing. "If answering a few difficult questions is the price of your forbearance then I will pay it." And he would, Methos realized. Because Cassandra, more than anyone, was entitled to ask him anything. She, alone, had the right to know his reasons. Not to hear excuses or useless apologies, but to comprehend the simple fact of his existence. And when all was said and done, he owed her this. Cassandra nodded thoughtfully. "When--" she suddenly paused, appearing to search for the right words. Finally Cassandra took a deep breath and started again. "How did you come to leave the Horsemen? Ramesses mentioned Socrates." "He would," Methos smiled fondly. "But that would be too facile an explanation even for me. Vicious killer meets wise philosopher and is led to embrace peace. Nice work, if you can get it, but it wasn't me. The truth is a lot more anticlimactic," he grinned ruefully. "I found out Ku'ahktar was dead and the very fact that I wasn't being hunted by him made me start to think. Or think again, I should say. I'd stopped doing a lot of that -- except for plotting strategies." "But you read. Constantly," Cassandra objected. "I remember you coming back from raids with scrolls hidden in your tunic. Then you'd hide them under your bed when you thought I wasn't watching." "Oh, that," Methos waved a hand. "I had to hide them or Kronos would have burned the lot. In those days he found literacy amusing. He generally liked to indulge me, but for some reason decided reading in the field was too much of a distraction. I kept a few treatises on war around just for show, but the good stuff was well hidden." "He burned your books?" she asked, not sure why she felt sorry for him, but she did. "Sometimes," Methos nodded. "Other times he let Silas feed them to the goats. Kronos wasn't interested in learning. He knew everything he needed -- or thought he did. Not a lot of study necessary to murder innocent civilians, at least in those days. And contrary to popular opinion figuring out that the sun really ought to be at your back when you charge headlong into a defenseless village doesn't require a whole lot of planning. As long as I made it sound incredibly dangerous and exciting," he shrugged, "Kronos was happy." Cassandra shook her head in amazement. Methos' self-deprecating tone as he belittled his so-called leadership abilities surprised her. She only remembered him as sure and strong, sitting at the fire with the other Horsemen plotting the next raid. It had all seemed so terribly complex in those days. Had he really been making it seem difficult just to keep Kronos entertained? She asked as much and Methos responded thoughtfully. "If Ku'ahktar taught me Immortals were to be viewed only as adversaries and mortals as objects needing to be removed from my path before eating or sleeping, then Kronos showed me how a glib tongue and fast thinking were the safest ways to keeping my head. But," he added seriously. "Make no mistake. I may have been running from Ku'ahktar when I met up with the others, but I chose to do what I did, Cassandra. I manipulated the Horsemen into existence for my own reasons and no matter how screwed up I was, I still bear that responsibility. "And, God help me," he sighed. "I liked it. Liked having the power and the freedom. Never having to run, never having to hide, always knowing the others were there to hack that bastard down if he found me. And the violence was soothing," he shuddered. "I had hurt for so long and without really understanding why that I wanted the whole world to hurt with me. You know that painting? The one by Edvard Munch. The Scream?" Cassandra nodded almost imperceptibly. "Well, inside, that was me. I screamed. You screamed. The world screamed because I screamed. Not fair," he whispered sadly. "But that's the truth of it." Cassandra stared at him for several long moments then, "You never did finish saying how you left the Horsemen." Methos nodded, pulling up his knees to keep warm as he realized the room was growing chilly. "I changed," he murmured wearily. "Not all at once and not just because of Socrates, but because I finally started seeing mortals as people. It took longer with Immortals, but the people," he smiled a little wistfully. "How could I admit that they had anything to teach me if I didn't admit first that they were people? Beings who deserved to live just as I wanted to live. And I finally started to see myself as they saw me. Or would have seen me if they'd known who I was. And my scream stared back at me. Looked me in the eye and went on shrieking until I ripped off the bandage of the Horsemen and let the canker heal properly. I left Kronos imprisoned on holy ground and tried to forget about him." "You deny the Horseman?" "No," he whispered sorrowfully. "He's here, because he's part of me. But he's been unseated and he'll never ride again, because I won't be ridden. He's just a shadow now, though sometimes he comes back to haunt me." Cassandra shivered and Methos stared at her. "You're cold," he stated simply, seeing the gooseflesh on her bare arms and started to remove his jacket. "Wait," Cassandra told him, scooting closer until she'd tucked herself into his side. "It's better if we stick together in this." Surprised, but strangely comforted, Methos wrapped the edge of his jacket around Cassandra's shoulders holding her carefully -- ready to release her immediately if she should seem displeased. She snuggled a little closer and rested her head against his chest. "We should try and sleep," she told him gently. "Not a chance," Methos said dryly. "I make it a point never to nap before a torture session. Makes the passing out bit easier." She glanced up at him, frowning just a little. "You always did have the oddest sense of humor." Methos gave her a wry smile. "Makes the living forever bit easier." Chapter 21 "Atten-SHUN!" The order rang out, silencing the arguing Immortals as Sergeant Bear strode into the room followed by Major Carter and their high ranking visitor. "At ease," General Hammond said quietly, staring hard at the assembled Immortals. He looked them over one by one carefully noting the barely leashed tension in their bodies. They wanted to fight, were ready to leap into the fray and defend the world's best interests. Unfortunately, they were also completely out of control. Of course, that was not entirely their fault, he thought sourly as he came face to face with Daniel. "It's nice to see you again, Dr. Jackson. We missed you back at Stargate Command." His sarcasm was not completely lost on the younger man. "General?" "First, let me thank you for doing my job for me, Dr. Jackson. But may I remind you, son, that it is not the job of a civilian to muster military resources." The archaeologist flushed, but defended himself reasonably. "I was only following Jack's orders, General Hammond. He said to get help. They can help." "I know Colonel O'Neill will be pleased to learn just how much to heart you take his commands. But I'll be sure to remind him to be a little bit more specific in giving directions next time." Without waiting for Daniel to respond he turned to the group, frowning. "And you people should know better by now," he accused. "Begging the General's pardon," MacLeod said evenly. "But this is Immortal business, sir." "Not," Hammond replied dangerously, stepping close to MacLeod. "When it is going through my Stargate and utilizing my resources, Airman." He moved back, glaring at the others. "Captain Pierson is under my command. Just as his and Cassandra's safety and well being are my concern, so is yours. I cannot and will not tolerate rogue missions for any reason. By you or anyone else under my command. Is that clear?!" They responded affirmatively, looking a bit more subdued. "That said," he went on, toning down his anger. "Dr. Jackson was absolutely correct in his assumption that you are the best team to handle this particular problem. But there is more at stake here than the lives of two of our own. There's the mission they were sent on that must be completed or we all might be facing a more serious issue than the capture of two Immortals. Now," he went on calmly. "I am willing to admit that I don't know much about what you are all truly capable of. But that's also why I'm here. To get the benefit of your combined experience." "Well, it's about time," Alexander said approvingly. "I was wondering when someone would show up to knock some sense into their heads." The general overlooked his inadvertent insubordination, nodding to the Macedonian in appreciation. "Thank you, Airman Philipson. And I'm going to take a moment of our time here to inform you that Sergeant Bear has recommended you for the position of Squad Leader and I've approved. Which means, ladies and gentlemen, that the next time you decide to take matters into your own hands Squad Leader Philipson is entitled to take you folks to task with my and Sergeant Bear's blessings." "Thank you, sir," Alexander acknowledged, smiling widely at the shocked Immortals. "And as to your earlier request, I'd just love to talk strategy." *** "Interesting strategy, sir," Major Carter commented as she watched the Immortal squad assemble. Not at the SGC back on Earth, but here on P3W184 where there was more room for their equipment. "It certainly has the benefit of being unique," Hammond admitted, straight faced. "Most unique," Martouf commented, his tone offering a hint of the mild amazement he clearly felt. Like the rest of the mortals he would not be accompanying the team for the first assault on the Goa'uld stronghold, but would be part of the next group sent in to secure the gate in his capacity as a Tok'ra observer. A few moments later engines revved, safeties went off and Sergeant Bear signaled the general that they were ready. With a nod, Hammond gave the order and the gate was engaged. Then they waited as the first unmanned element of the assault proceeded through the gate. *** "Heads up," O'Neill called softly to Teal'c as he centered his field glasses on the Stargate which had opened again -- the third time in as many hours. "This could be it," he said as another pair of low flying reconnaissance drones suddenly exited the wormhole. The response from the Jaffa below the ridge was desultory at best. The sun was just coming up and they had spent most of their excitement over the small intrusions earlier on. Laughing at the seemingly weak opposition, they took a few pot shots at the drones, knocking them out of the sky and taking little interest as a second pair then a third and fourth came buzzing through. But this time the drones were larger. More to the point, O'Neill smiled as he put away his glasses -- they were carrying a payload. Percussive grenades boomed and smoke bombs exploded obscuring the gate. And in their wake came a sound O'Neill knew well as a familiar golden head suddenly burst through the wormhole, Alexander's motorcycle leaping past the first guards as he let out an unearthly howl, firing at everything. O'Neill almost shouted with glee as two more bikes shot from the gate, barreling down on the stunned Jaffa, while behind them came the rest of the Immortals on foot, pounding away with M80s, P90s and Laws rockets. O'Neill and Teal'c started shooting, not giving the Jaffa a chance to regroup, though they certainly put up a fierce resistance. But it wouldn't do them a bit of good O'Neill realized as he watched with pride and a touch of wonder. The Immortals ignored almost every opportunity to take cover. When one went down the others kept the pressure up and then the downed Immortal would rise and keep on fighting. It was glorious to see the confused Jaffa unable to cope as the Immortals became their own second, third and fourth wave invasionary force. Three death gliders appeared and the rockets took them out -- then a handful of Jaffa broke ranks and the route was on. Their own troops turned and fired on the deserters giving the Immortals an even greater opportunity as Alexander offered quarter to any who surrendered. Few did, but it was demoralizing nonetheless and distracted the others who sought to kill their former comrades. When the fighting became hand to hand combat the Immortals wasted no time in drawing their swords and cutting down the opposition in the way they knew best. It was surreal and horrifying all at once. But that was war, Jack knew and at the end he and Teal'c scrambled down to join the strike force once the fighting was over. "Very, very impressive!" O'Neill exclaimed as he reached Alexander first. Teal'c on the other hand, strode over to the tiny Macedonian, picked him up, looked him in the eye and stated emphatically, "Yee. Ha." "Yee. Ha?" Jack repeated, looking askance as Teal'c put Alexander down. "O-kay. Yeehah!" Back on his feet the stunned Immortal came to attention and saluted. "Squad Leader Philipson reporting as ordered, sir!" Bemused, O'Neill returned the salute and looked to Sergeant Bear, who was smiling with delight. And nearby, MacLeod was grinning as he and Robert moved to retrieve their bikes. "That was fun," the Highlander commented, pausing to salute O'Neill and nod to the sergeant. "Most I've had in years!" Robert agreed, saluting casually. "I think I'm going to like this job." "A delightfully bloodthirsty romp," Ramirez' remarked enthusiastically as he and the others joined the group. "Truly exhilarating," Ptahsennes sighed with pleasure. "I can't remember the last time I enjoyed myself so much. Perhaps when I joined the pharaoh's army and we chased those pesky Hebrew slaves into the sea that one time. Of course we lost them, but it was still great fun." O'Neill smiled weakly and nodded. "Yeah, well, I've only saved the world a couple of times. Nothing of biblical proportions though." Still, he thought as he watched them congratulating each other, they were entitled to enjoy their battle high -- along with their justifiable pride. For the first time in any of their histories Immortals had fought a pitched battle in the face of overwhelming odds without having to hide what they were. And if you were going to have Immortals in your armed forces, what else did you do with them but let them be the Immortals they were? Chapter 22 The hours passed in silence, punctuated only occasionally by the passing of a guard and hushed conversation. They talked about the Goa'uld and the Tok'ra. About the Nox, the Asgard and the Tollan, advanced races of beings Methos had never met, but whom he'd read about and found fascinating. They talked about anything and everything that didn't touch on either one of them by silent, but mutual consent. Until at last Cassandra asked about something closer to home. "What do you know about the Game, Methos? Ramirez claims it is a fabrication. That a very old, very dangerous Immortal invented it." "Ku'ahktar," Methos nodded and smiled indulgently when Cassandra looked up. "It's okay, you can say his name. I don't mind. But no," he sighed. "I don't believe he did. The man I knew was a monster all right, but not that clever. His brightest idea in six thousand years was to take a holiday from training vicious brutes, find some scholarly type and turn him into one hoping to get a more interesting chase out of the hunt." Cassandra shuddered and Methos absently patted her arm. "If that's the case," she finally asked. "Then how did the Game come about?" "Well, I do have this theory," Methos responded slowly. "Some Immortal with a cushy job as a local god meets another Immortal for the first time and doesn't want to lose his post. Immortal A draws his sword and shouts to Immortal B, 'There can be only one!' In self defense Immortal B kills Immortal A, who was older and presumably wiser, then wanders off only to run into Immortal C. This time Immortal B draws his sword and shouts, 'There can be only one!' Somewhat bewildered, Immortal C asks, 'What do you mean there can be only one? There are twenty of us gathered over the next hillside.' Immortal B says, 'Really? A gathering? But there can be only one!' And that's when the fighting starts. A few gullible idiots get away and warn everyone they meet about the dangers of gathering in large numbers. So now we all get to shout, 'There can be only one!' and have at each other. Moronic, but likely." Beside him, Methos could see that Cassandra didn't know whether to laugh or be shocked. She settled for amused disapproval which only served to make him smile. "It's just a theory," he shrugged. "Anyway, who knows how these things begin? Up until a few centuries ago we all laughed at people like Columbus. We thought the world was flat and rode on the back of a giant sea turtle endlessly walking in circles. Or balanced precariously on the shoulders of a god. I know I was as eager as anyone to hear stories of the New World, taste potatoes for the first time, and believed at least some of the tales I heard. Enough to take ship and visit the Americas to see for myself." "Are you saying the reality is never as interesting as the fantasy?" she asked, surprised. "On the contrary," he corrected. "I'm saying it's more interesting, but a lot less filled with supposed machinations and convoluted reasoning. Did you know that the entire American Revolution and subsequent demise of the British Empire were plotted by a spiteful little man in the backroom of a Boston tavern?" "You're not serious," Cassandra scoffed. "But I am," Methos insisted. "Samuel Adams. I even met him once. A bitter man if ever there was one and all because his father lost his fortune when Parliament declared that land grant deeds gained through speculation in the Colonies were null and void. Being reduced to abject poverty overnight had a chilling effect on the lad. Blamed the Crown for it all and spent the rest of his life agitating against anything British. It was his early writings that brought anti-British sentiment in the Colonies to a fever pitch. Not that the people weren't pissed off over their taxes, but you know and I know that no one's ever fomented an entire rebellion over them. You just suck it up and pay the damn things. It's annoying, but nothing to declare war over. Unless of course there's a deeper schism being created for other reasons. Like one man's grudge against an entire government. Samuel Adams didn't do it alone, but he sure as hell got a lot of people to start thinking like him." "All right," Cassandra sighed. "I'll concede the point. But really, Methos, a man dead for nearly two hundred years did not manage to bring about the downfall of the British Empire. For one thing, it still exists." "But it's a Commonwealth now." "So?" "Question. After the Second World War which economic and military superpower made it a condition of joining the United Nations that the British Empire would divest itself of all its imperial holdings, ipso facto giving almost complete control of the air and seas to that particular country?" "The United States, but-- Oh, my!" Cassandra sat up and stared at him. "He won." "I rest my case," Methos grinned. "Reality is far more interesting in its simplicity than the supposed machinations and convoluted reasoning of fantasy." A sudden thought crossed Cassandra's mind and she narrowed her eyes. "Just how many degrees do you have, Methos?" "In modern terms?" he shrugged. "Eighty-three Bachelor of Arts, one hundred sixteen Masters, forty-seven Doctorates and twenty-two Post Doctoral degrees. Why? Need a recommendation to a good college?" Whatever comment Cassandra might have made was forestalled by the sound of heavy boots coming up the hall. Not the lone guard they were familiar with, but at least three or four. "Party time," Methos muttered as they both hurriedly rose off the floor. *** O'Neill and Teal'c swiftly led the way through the jungle toward the rear entrance of the temple they'd used before. Pierson was right, the colonel thought, in their arrogance the Goa'uld felt completely secure and that attitude filtered down the pipe to their security forces. He didn't doubt that Jaffa troops going up against their similarly trained counterparts in a standup fight performed extremely well. But they had no experience with the tactics of deception and misdirection. Something at which the Earth forces excelled. Their decision to use the same back door, and without the advantage of having Kabra'kan under their control, would be an unimaginable choice to the mind of a Goa'uld or Jaffa. Like Alexander's advice to hit hard and fast at the most heavily defended point. It was the kind of strategy that implied to the enemy that the invader knew something they didn't. Had found a weakness to exploit and was using it, regardless of whether it was true or not. It had shaken the defensive line at the Stargate and now that same cocksure attitude could be exploited again. "This is the place," O'Neill informed Sergeant Bear, who quietly ordered his troops into position. He broke down the squad into two teams, ordering MacLeod, Cierdwyn and Robert ahead with Alexander taking point. O'Neill watched with gratification as the Immortals made their way so carefully through the undergrowth that barely a leaf stirred to mark their passing. So much experience, so little need to explain the necessities... It was a heady feeling being in command of such forces again. He could count on them, like he could count on Pierson or Teal'c. Warriors to the core who understood the exigencies and obstacles of combat. More importantly, it was gratifying to know that even if they went down, they'd be getting up again and that was one less burden on his soul. They reached the cave entrance and Bear ordered the second squad up. A few minutes later Alexander called in that the way was clear and the colonel signaled for Teal'c and the sergeant to move up while he took the rear. It was pathetically easy to reach the security field, but that didn't necessarily mean their troubles were over. Someone would have to go through it and that meant they'd be defenseless for as long as it took them to revive. "Darieux . Philipson." Bear pointed to the shield. "Watch her back." Alexander nodded sharing a look with Amanda. "I hate this part," she muttered then joined him at the shield and together they stepped into its embrace. O'Neill ground his teeth almost glad he couldn't see their faces. Their bodies twitched and convulsed making garbled noises as their brains were scrambled. A moment later they fell, landing safely on the other side of the shield. The colonel reflexively swallowed his fear when they finally stopped breathing, along with the urge to rush forward and help. Long minutes passed, giving him enough time to wonder again what had happened to Pierson after SG-1 had been driven from the tunnel. "Don't worry, Colonel," MacLeod told him quietly. "Injuries to the brain take a little longer to heal." "Does it hurt?" he asked curiously, never having thought to question Pierson. "I mean after." "A bit," MacLeod nodded. "Sometimes the healing continues after you're awake, or you feel a phantom pain from the injury, but that passes." "And the other? The dead thing." O'Neill repressed a shudder. "What's that like?" "It's not like anything. One minute you feel yourself fading and then you're awake. No light, no tunnel, no visions of heaven, just nothing. That's why most Immortals hate it. If you don't know what you are it can be terrifying. Believe me, I know." O'Neill said nothing, heaving an internal sigh of relief as first Alexander then Amanda suddenly started breathing. The Macedonian brought up his weapon even before he rolled to his feet while Amanda staggered slightly, righting herself almost instantly. Hiding a smile, O'Neill watched approvingly as they immediately focused on the mission. Alexander guarding Amanda's back while she worked at the panel that controlled the security screen. She'd been a good call, O'Neill admitted silently. Amanda's skills at high tech thieving had made her a quick study. She'd spent real quality time with Martouf and Teal'c learning as much as she could absorb about Goa'uld security systems. How they functioned and why. Which meant she had little trouble deactivating this piece of technology. "Voila!" she grinned as the shield came down, stepping back to let the others move past her as Sergeant Bear brought them forward to secure the corridor. "Good," O'Neill said. "Now put it back. I don't want a stray guard sounding the alarm." She grimaced distastefully. "Goes against the grain, sir, but give me a second." "You've already had it," O'Neill growled. "Next time, cut the back talk." "Grumpy, grumpy," he heard her mumbling and, "No appreciation for artistry," under her breath as she hurriedly went to work. Incredibly skilled they might be, O'Neill thought disgustedly, but temperamental and insubordinate. He wondered if that were a side effect of having lived such a long life then thought better of it. Alexander and Cierdwyn seemed all right. But maybe that was because they'd both grown up inside large, well organized armies. Which meant Tok'ra's son had no excuse. Methos was annoying because he liked it. Again O'Neill followed at the rear, admiring Sergeant Bear's skills in getting the Immortals to quickly do what he wanted. Then again, he'd had more practice with this testy bunch. A few moments after the first team disappeared with Teal'c via the rings they sent back a candy bar to signal that the area above was secured and clear. O'Neill rolled his eyes wondering who the irreverent joker in the group was, but didn't take issue with it. They were after all, still in training. And the idea wasn't to pound the individuality out of them, but to mold them into a team. Once within the ship, O'Neill watched as Teal'c led the way to where they believed the stolen weapons had been stored. That of course, was the main thrust of the mission. The rescue of the two Immortals was to follow once they'd planted the timed charges. The colonel slipped away, feeling no compunction about leaving Teal'c and Bear in charge. They were good men and would see the mission through, making sure it was done to his specifications. A few minutes later his radio crackled and O'Neill slipped into a shadowy niche to answer Teal'c. "You are seeking Cassandra and Methos." The words were a statement and O'Neill grinned. "You know it, big guy. Pierson still owes me six thousand pushups. He's not getting out of 'em that easy." Chapter 23 The prisoners didn't have far to go once they were released from their holding cell. Just down the hall to Kabra'kan's sarcophagus where they were forced to kneel and wait for the god to arise. Unimpressed, Methos and Cassandra shared a glance. One bemused, but cautious, the other nervous, but wary. Having done their fair share of kneeling, both to gods and individuals at one time or another, they made themselves comfortable and waited patiently for the sarcophagus to open. Eventually, when it was deemed they'd been subservient for long enough, a guard ordered one of the servants forwards. The woman, one of the Maya descendants from the look of her, scurried to the sarcophagus and tapped a small panel on the side before rushing back to her place against the wall. It opened with a scraping noise as the top slid apart like insect wings. Then, looking ever so pleased with himself, Kabra'kan sat up and climbed out of the interior, ignoring Methos and Cassandra but for a negligible wave of a hand to a guard and quiet command. "Bring them," Methos heard and they got to their feet. The laboratory was just beyond the central living area and Methos had his first good look at the place, noting with little surprise that their packs had been opened and the contents laid out on one of the tables. The only weapon visible though was his sword. No doubt Kabra'kan thought it a quaint affectation. The Goa'uld went to a cabinet and removed a pair of hand devices which looked suspiciously like high tech jewelry, but according to O'Neill and the others were weapons which packed quite a wallop. "Do you have a name?" Kabra'kan asked, returning to stand before Methos. Don't sweat the small stuff, he reminded himself silently. "Pierson. Captain Adam Pierson." "That is a Tau'ri name," Kabra'kan said quietly. "You are not of the Tau'ri." The Goa'uld swiped a hand through the air painting a glowing line of agony across Methos' chest. He shouted and fell to his knees gasping for breath as he clutched himself. At a word from Kabra'kan the guards pulled his arms back and bared his torso allowing the Goa'uld to view the healing process. "Interesting," the Goa'uld commented when the burn slash was gone. "How do you do heal so quickly?" "You mean without tricks?" Kabra'kan nodded to the guard behind Methos and before he could even guess at what might happen his entire body was suffused with pain -- unending and unchanging in its intensity, ceasing only when the Goa'uld decreed release. Methos would have collapsed had the guards not righted him. Suddenly, a Jaffa was lifting his chin with tip of a long, thin cylindrical object and Methos recognized it from Daniel's descriptions. A pain stick. Sort of a human cattle prod only far more excruciating in effect. Still, nasty as it was, it was about as terrifying as being hit in the back of the head with a hammer. No finesse, Methos thought sourly as he tried to catch his breath. Bloody amateurs. "Now tell me," Kabra'kan smiled venomously. "How do you heal so quickly?" Methos didn't need to hear the threat implicit in Kabra'kan's tone to understand the penalty. And since he'd planned on answering eventually he might just as well get on with it. "I was born with the ability," he said, trying his best to look defeated. "How lucky for you," Kabra'kan grinned. "And are there others like you?" the Goa'uld asked. Wondering, Methos supposed, just how many of his fellows he might offer such a gift in exchange for their allegiance. Methos lowered his eyes. "No," he whispered. The pain stick was applied again and the question repeated. "Tell me the truth!" Kabra'kan demanded. "It is the truth!" Methos growled, not bothering to hide his agony. "There are no others like me!" The pain stick was threatened and he flinched away, but Kabra'kan held up a hand to stop it. "It does not matter," the Goa'uld sneered. "I will know it all soon enough." Methos let his eyes go wide and increased his breathing slightly as Kabra'kan grabbed his chin, turning Methos' face from side to side as if examining the merchandise. He caught Cassandra staring in horrified fascination and winked at her. If she was the least bit startled he didn't see it, too preoccupied with flinching visibly while Kabra'kan's hands roamed possessively through his hair and down his shoulders as the guards pulled him up and held him for inspection. "This will make an excellent host body," Kabra'kan murmured appreciatively. "No! Please! No!" Cassandra suddenly shouted. "Adam! Please! You must fight them!" He struggled a little as she went on ranting, though Methos thought the whole, "What will I do without you?" bit was way over the top. Still, no one seemed to notice and it made Kabra'kan's eyes gleam avariciously. Perhaps thinking the body itself could be used to make Cassandra a willing tool. Dream on, pal, Methos thought faintly amused. Then a guard cuffed him and he fell to his knees again while another yanked his head down and forward. He heard a noise from behind as if something large and nasty were being regurgitated and steeled himself for the attack. "Oh, no you don't!" Jack's voice called from the door and weapons fire erupted across the room. As the Jaffa released him to defend their god, the Goa'uld activated his personal shield while Methos got his feet under him and made for his sword. Cassandra got there first and tossed it to him, taking a blast of staff fire for her trouble. She went down and Methos went for the Jaffa, moving into his fighting space so quickly the man had no idea what was happening until he looked down to find himself impaled on Methos' sword. He turned to find Kabra'kan as the last rounds of gunfire died, but the Goa'uld was gone. "Damn it, Jack! I almost had him!" Methos complained. He stomped over to Cassandra, who was struggling to sit up. "You couldn't wait two minutes?" O'Neill glowered at him. "You mean he almost had you!" "Yeah," Methos nodded. "In another minute he was toast." Jack looked disgusted. "Do you know what it feels like to have one of those things slithering into you? Well, I do. Trust me, Pierson, it's not a memory you want." "Well, it was my choice," Methos retorted as he helped a very shaken Cassandra to her feet. "Next time, trust me to have a little more common sense than you give me credit for." "Why you ungrateful bastard!" O'Neill glared, turning toward the door as the Immortals followed. "I ought to--" The burst of staff fire seemed to come out of nowhere. It struck Jack square in the chest and knocked him several feet back. "No!" Methos shouted, shoving Cassandra down as he hurriedly scanned the room for the culprit. But the guards were dead and he turned his eyes towards Kabra'kan's living quarters. Fury filled him as he spotted a boy, no more than a teenager, grinning wildly as he pointed a fallen staff weapon in Methos' direction. What the boy saw Methos didn't want to imagine. Shades of the Horseman he later supposed, stalking coldly toward him. The boy's shot went nearly as wide as his eyes, but Methos' aim was true. He slipped the tip of his blade in just below the sternum and shoved upward, his face expressionless as he watched the boy die. The rest of the servants started screaming and running, but Methos paid them scant attention. All he could think of was helping Jack. He turned back to see Cassandra kneeling over the colonel's prostrate form, shaking her head when he looked at her. "He's gone." "No!" "I'm sorry, Methos." "No!" he growled. "I will not have it!" "Methos," Cassandra said gently, reaching out a hand to comfort. He brushed it away as he knelt beside the body, lifting it by the arms. "Methos! What are you doing?!" "Either help me, woman, or keep out of my way!" he snarled, hefting the corpse over his shoulder. She stared at him, clearly appalled. No doubt thinking he was engaged in some form of abomination, but Methos didn't care. He turned and headed for Kabra'kan's sleeping chamber and went to the sarcophagus. "Are you sure this is wise?" Cassandra said from behind when Methos tapped the control panel as he'd seen the servant do. "I was told these things are dangerous to mortals. They cause madness and--" "Only with long term use," Methos said tightly. "Just once isn't enough." The sarcophagus opened and Methos laid the body inside. "Would Colonel O'Neill want this?" Cassandra asked gently, moving to block him. "I want this," Methos turned, glowering at her. "That's all that matters. Now get out of my way, Cassandra." She nodded once and made to move but a gasp from the sarcophagus startled her. "What the hell?" they heard O'Neill croak. "Jesus!" He sat up, running shaky hands over his chest and the Immortals drew back, shocked into silence. The move caught Jack's attention and he glared at them. "Who the hell had the bright idea to put me into this thing?!" he demanded. "I..." Methos started, then slowly shook his head. He looked to Cassandra, who was staring in openmouthed wonder. It was the same for her, Methos realized. O'Neill hadn't been pre-Immortal and neither of them could feel a buzz! "I shoulda known you'd pull something like this, Pierson," the colonel frowned. "You know my standing orders. You never, ever put me into one of these godforsaken things!" "I..." Methos swallowed hard. "I'm sorry," he whispered, not knowing what else to say. "I just... I couldn't let you die, Jack." O'Neill's expression softened. "Oh, all right," he heaved a disgusted sigh. "I'll let it slide. But just this once, you hear me?" Methos nodded, wondering how the hell he was going to tell Jack that he appeared to be Immortal -- but wasn't. "Thank you," O'Neill said sarcastically. "Now, be a good minion and help me out of this contraption." Methos somehow found the wit to smile and saluted his Commanding Officer. "Sir, yes, sir, O Great Satan, sir." Jack grimaced disgustedly. "God damn it, Pierson!" he complained as Methos offered his arm. "How many times do I have to say it? You don't ever salute indoors!" Chapter 24 "Sergeant Bear?" Gina came forward holding a palm sized computer, looking worried. "Yes, Airman?" "The manifest, Sergeant. It doesn't add up. Some of the weapons are missing." "Zipak'na," Teal'c frowned as the others finished laying the last of the charges. "We go after him?" Bear asked Teal'c. Apophis' former First Prime might technically hold no rank, but the man had been a general and was nominally O'Neill's second in command as far as he was concerned. It was half suggestion, half question and Teal'c considered it thoughtfully. "We must complete our mission," the Jaffa decided. "And await further orders." "All done, Sergeant," Robert reported a little breathlessly as he and Ptahsennes came up. "It will make a lovely boom," the priest added as they waited for the others. "Do you not think so, Robert?" "Sort of reminds me of when I got my first cannon," the pirate mused. "Hours of fun. God, I really do miss the old days." Ptahsennes nodded sadly. "We really knew what fun was then." The other Immortals soon joined them and Sergeant Bear did a quick head count. "All right, people, let's move out. We've still got a job to do. Any idea where to find Colonel O'Neill?" he asked Teal'c as they fell in. The crackle of the radio answered the question for him. "You there, big guy?" O'Neill's voice came through loud and clear. "I am, O'Neill. We have completed our task." "Copy. Any trouble?" "A few minor problems," the Jaffa grinned as he moved past a corpse. "But they will trouble us no further. Unfortunately, the greater difficulty is Lord Zipak'na. It appears he may still be in possession of some of the weapons and may have already left this world." "Damn! Okay. I've got Pierson and Cassandra. We're headed for the exit. Meets us there. O'Neill out." "Things appear to be getting interesting," Ramirez said quietly to Amanda as the first squad moved up and they waited for Sergeant Bear's order to join them. "Interesting? You said it, brother!" *** O'Neill, Methos and Cassandra met up with the others at the rings. Oddly enough they'd encountered little resistance and it confirmed the colonel's fears that Zipak'na and Kabra'kan either had, or were, in the process of leaving. As soon as they were down in the tunnels he radioed the team at the gate only to discover they were under fire. "We're pinned down," Carter reported. "It's a large force. Looks like they don't want us bringing in any more support, sir." So that's where the troops are, O'Neill nodded as he felt the ground start to rumble. Not from their explosives he was sure, but from the sound of it the Goa'uld were planning to take off. "Okay, Carter. Have Martouf get hold of Jacob. He should still be in the area. Have him meet us at the spot we picked out. Then get our people back through the gate." She confirmed the order and O'Neill switched off, moving up to join Bear, Teal'c and Methos. Someone -- O'Neill looked around and spotted MacLeod out of uniform -- had given Methos their jacket. "We're leaving. Have Amanda open the door," he ordered and Sergeant Bear made it happen. A few minutes later they were cautiously moving into the jungle when an explosion rocked the ship behind them. "Touchdown!" O'Neill muttered as they all looked back. With a frown, he saw a smaller ship accompanied by several death gliders escaping into the atmosphere. "Damn it!" he shouted even as Teal'c started firing and those with Laws rockets pulled them out. They would never make it he realized and looked to Methos. "We can't let any of those weapons get off this planet," he told the Immortal. Wearing a faintly stunned expression Methos nodded and stood up. Good man, O'Neill thought, taking cover with Teal'c as he ordered everybody down and to cease fire. There was silence and surprise among the others, then they watched as Methos raised his arm. The skies suddenly darkened and thunder slammed through the forest as the Quickening came down touching them all. They writhed, caught in the grip of its power. A few cried out questions, but Methos merely held his stance, a look of intense concentration on his normally placid face. All at once he pointed and a bolt of lightening shot from his other hand and into the sky. It snapped upward, seeming to search for its target and an instant later a series of explosions could be heard in the distance. Without a word, Methos lowered his arms and the phenomenon stopped. "Bloody hell," Robert muttered, staring wide eyed. "He really is Methos." The ancient Immortal only smiled. "I'm hoping that was Kabra'kan," he casually told Jack. "I do sometimes like to keep my promises." *** "Where are the weapons?" Jacob asked an hour later as O'Neill and the others trooped aboard. "Hello. How are you? Good to see you. Glad you're alive," O'Neill muttered. "Not a word and then all he asks for is presents." "Kids," Methos nodded sagely. "This isn't funny, Jack," the Tok'ra frowned. "You promised to get those weapons and--" "As I recall," O'Neill corrected. "The deal was: Whatever weapons we retrieve, we share. Well, we didn't retrieve any, so there's nothing to share." "You tricked us!" Selmak snarled. "What goes around comes around," O'Neill shrugged. "I can't believe George would lie to us like this!" Carter spoke this time, just as furious as his symbiote. "He didn't," O'Neill responded honestly. "The orders came directly from above. All the way above. Ah, come on, Jacob," O'Neill argued as the other man sputtered in outrage. "What's the point of obtaining weapons so advanced you know you can't use 'em because you can't figure 'em out? And the folks you plan to share them with won't give you a hint about how? Did you think we suddenly got stupid once you left? That we believe all that crap about the Tok'ra helping us out the next time the Goa'uld show up? Have the Tok'ra ever even offered us a run down cargo ship like this one so we wouldn't have to beg for a ride?" O'Neill shook his head. "It's just a one way street with you guys. You don't trust us? Well, right back at ya, Selmak. We blew the damn weapons up because we found 'em first and if we can't use 'em no one else will!" Furious, Jacob stalked from the room and headed for the control center. O'Neill turned to find the Immortals staring at him, serious expressions all around. "Is this typical of this alliance?" Ramirez quietly asked Teal'c. "Don't answer that," O'Neill curtly interrupted. "You folks wanna know the truth? Fine. We give, they take. They ask, we give. Am I suspicious? You bet I am. But when it comes right down to it the Tok'ra are all we've got. So for now we put up with it. Understood?" "Clearly," Alexander nodded as did the others. "Anything else we should know about them?" O'Neill looked over his shoulder to make sure Jacob wasn't within hearing distance. "It's not PC, but when you get past the fact that they call it blending and let their hosts speak for themselves, they're all just snakeheads deep down inside. As far as I'm concerned this so-called alliance has way too parasitic a feel for us to trust 'em. Now, everybody inside," he pointed to the crew quarters. "There's not a whole lot of room and it'll take us three days to get where we're going. Let's try and keep it civil, campers." Chapter 25 Close to thirty thousand years of martial expertise in one small room and what does it come down to, O'Neill thought. "If I have to listen to one more Egyptian-Macedonian-Celtic-Jaffa drinking song so help me..." he muttered to the Immortal sitting beside him. "It wouldn't be so bad," he added, staring dismally at his cup. "If we had something to drink besides Tang." "You're telling me," Methos grimaced, knocking back his juice in one shot. "Alex is composing an epic poem about yours truly -- to be declaimed in proper Greek style. And the de Valicourts are having a Come As You Were party -- we're all invited." "That sounds...weird," O'Neill shook his head, not wanting to imagine anything so bizarre. "The problem is I don't want to go as I was," Methos complained. "Either I'll be the only one dressed in rancid rhinoceros skins, or worse -- bright yellow spandex. Neither is very flattering." "Spandex?" O'Neill's brows nearly reached his hairline. "Inanna designed the uniforms," Methos shrugged. "Looked great on her." O'Neill suddenly wore the oddest expression. "Excuse me, but... I'm... Just gonna get some more Tang," he finished brightly. "I really love this stuff!" "Yeah, later," Methos gave him a halfhearted wave as the colonel departed. Across the room he watched the other Immortals, all seemingly relaxed. Even Cassandra, who'd had that damned collar of Kabra'kan's removed by Jacob shortly after they'd come aboard. It had disappeared into her pocket and, according to Teal'c had subsequently been blasted out an airlock on O'Neill's orders. She caught him staring and wandered over, ignoring MacLeod's frown. "You look depressed. Still going on about the party?" she asked, sounding faintly amused as she settled down beside him. "Come on, Cassandra, we'll be the only ones dressed in rags -- and at least you had cloth!" Methos fumed. "Maybe I should find some authentic lice and bring them along. I can teach you kids how to pick them off each other. Makes a wonderful after dinner snack, you know." "Personally, I preferred giant roasted spiders and stewed tree slugs," Cassandra confided. "Want to make it a Dine Like The Ancient Ones party, too?" They shared a laugh, gaining more MacLeod scrutiny and Methos looked away, not wanting the overprotective Highlander to spoil the moment. Cassandra had spent most of the last three days closeted with Cierdwyn in one of the smaller cargo rooms, probably venting whatever residual anger she felt. And Methos was glad for her. "You haven't spoken to O'Neill, have you?" Cassandra suddenly asked. Methos shook his head. "No, I haven't. I--" The sound of Jack's voice immediately overrode every conversation in the room. "Okay, campers, let's pack it up. We'll be home, sweet home in just a few." With a cheer everyone rose to gather their personal belongings. They debarked a short while later without incident, though the atmosphere between O'Neill and Jacob as they parted had been decidedly cool. They headed for the gate, pulling up short as they came face to face with a delegation from the Tok'ra. "Grand Counsel Garshaw," O'Neill nodded politely though his address was wary. "Fancy meeting you here." "Colonel O'Neill," she nodded, equally polite. "I apologize for our abrupt appearance, but the Council wished to take this opportunity to speak directly with your companions." "Recruits," O'Neill corrected her. "They're still in training, Garshaw." "So we have been informed," she gestured vaguely toward Martouf. "Though such training seems redundant when warriors of such stature and experience are involved." She gave a little half bow to the assembled Immortals. "But if they wish to indulge you, that of course is their choice." Methos raised an eyebrow at that. "Steady," he murmured to O'Neill, who looked ready to explode. "Be that as it may," Garshaw went on, ignoring the colonel. "The Tok'ra wish to thank all of you for your noble efforts on behalf of our cause. We would be remiss however, given your most unique histories and outstanding brilliance, if we did not offer you the strength, support and loyalty of all the Tok'ra to aid you in our mutual struggle against the System Lords. We offer you a home. A base from which to continue your efforts free from the Game. An obscenity," she added, glaring pointedly at Jack, "which should not be allowed to threaten your precious lives." There was a stir among the Immortals, but Garshaw, seemingly oblivious, went on. "You will find us most eager to learn from you. Such wisdom and battle strategies are rare in this galaxy and would be better served by allowing you to engage those skills, rather than preventing you from utilizing them on a constant basis -- and in tasks better suited to others. Together, we can bring freedom and justice to this galaxy." She bowed deeply. "I await your decision, Most Revered Ones." Methos took one look at Jack and laid a firm hand on his shoulder. "Steady, O'Neill," he murmured. "Give easily what the Tok'ra do not." The colonel stared at him and slowly nodded. "Trust," he breathed, exhaling the word as if expelling a poison from his lungs. They both glanced at the Immortals, who stood huddled in a tight group whispering furiously. One by one they went silent as if debating something. Methos watched as MacLeod shook his head and Cassandra caressed his cheek speaking very softly. Finally he nodded and the group broke apart, Sergeant Bear ordering them to fall in. He nodded to Alexander, who stepped forward to speak for the group. "Methos is the eldest of us. We choose him to answer for all." "Well knock me over with a two by four," Methos muttered, clearly stunned. He looked to Jack, who was now smiling broadly. "Have at 'em, Pierson." Methos sighed resignedly and moved forward, past the Immortals standing at parade rest to stop before Garshaw, who now appeared deeply concerned, though it was she who'd asked for this confrontation. "You know who I am, Grand Counsel Garshaw?" Methos asked quietly. "Of course," she breathed. "You are Methos, son of Tok'ra, hero of the Battle of--" He held up a hand to stop her, not bothering to hide his irritation. "Let's keep it simple, shall we? Are you willing to accept my judgement in this matter?" "Your people are wise to choose you," Garshaw nodded. "We will abide by your decision, Revered One." "Wonderful," he smiled thinly. "But first I have a few questions to ask you -- rhetorical though they might be. First. Why, oh why, Grand Counsel Garshaw, did you think to suborn these good people?" "We did not--!" "Silence!" Methos called until the word echoed loudly through the empty ruins. "You have had your say, now I shall have mine!" She swallowed hard, looking visibly shaken by whatever she saw in his eyes. Methos frowned deeply and began to pace before her and the other Tok'ra, taking the measure of them slowly. "You did attempt to suborn them, Garshaw," he continued almost pleasantly a few moments later. "What else would you call it? They are under the command of the Tau'ri military. I'd call that subornation. So would anyone. And why is it," he paused briefly to gaze at her. "That you chose this moment to make such an interesting offer?" Having learned her lesson earlier Garshaw said nothing. "I'll tell you why," Methos smiled coldly. "Because the Tau'ri had already done your job. Found themselves a unique and exceptional weapon with which to fight the Goa'uld. And one they did not have to beg, steal, or borrow -- a home grown weapon, if you will. And once they'd honed that blade you wanted it for yourselves," he sneered. "It's not enough to deny the Tau'ri your technology, but you must strip them of any defense they might have for your own desires." "This is not true!" Garshaw gasped. "We only seek to better use this tool. In their defense and ours." "We are people, Garshaw, not tools," Methos said his tone belying his affable expression. "And you seek nothing of the sort. Tell me," he asked casually. "Have you a plan for what the Tok'ra will do should they ever manage to overthrow the Goa'uld?" Her expression grew watchful and Methos rolled his eyes. "Oh, relax," he sighed disgustedly. "I don't care about how you intend to get there. I already know that. A fool could see it a mile off! I just want to know what you plan to do when you have." "We would seek to instill a desire for freedom and justice among all the peoples of the Goa'uld controlled worlds," she responded sagaciously. Methos openly laughed at her. "Does anyone actually buy that line? I mean really, Garshaw. I've never heard such lame propaganda. Give me specifics. Better yet," he smiled. "Admit that you have none." The Grand Counsel frowned. "If you are not pleased, Methos, then tell us what you would do." "Me? I'd do nothing. I don't care about freedom and justice. I care about paying my telephone bill and making sure I get the video rentals back on time. Going to the library when I want, or taking a walk in the park. Of course, I can't do any of those things if the Goa'uld destroy my planet. So you could say I'm in this just to maintain my quality of life. As for what you will do," he pursed his lips and nodded thoughtfully. "That I can tell you." Garshaw remained silent and Methos went on. "To begin with, even before you ever get control of anything, you'll start justifying your actions with the two most wonderful words in the rebels' dictionary. The Cause." He watched her flinch and nodded. "Anything can be done in the name of The Cause because it is The Cause. The common goal to which all good rebels and revolutionaries aspire. Of course, once you've said those words you've reached a turning point where the means begin to justify the ends. In this case," Methos sighed with mocking sorrow. "The Tok'ra have very nearly reached that point already." He paused before Martouf. "Haven't they?" he asked the silent man. Methos turned like a showman to the assembled Immortals. "Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Tok'ra Jolinar." He applauded slowly then stopped with a contemptuous glance over his shoulder at Garshaw. "For those of you never having heard of Jolinar," he went on smiling. "She was Martouf's lady love. Being hunted by Goa'uld assassins and nearly dead, her mission was far too important to let a small thing like an uninformed and unwilling host get in her way. She allowed her symbiote to forcibly blend with Major Carter." He turned back to Martouf. "Jolinar did the one thing the Tok'ra pride themselves on never doing. And she did it for The Cause." He cocked his head as he watched Martouf's eyes flare with anger. "Or maybe she did it for love. Who knows? Who cares? She did it," his voice grew hard. "She made that choice and crossed the line. Which one of you," he asked the Tok'ra, "can say for certain that you would not make the same choice given similar circumstances?" There was silence and Methos nodded. "So the needs of the Tok'ra have become one with the needs of The Cause. How typical," he added sardonically. "There are some drug dealing rebels and religious fanatics back home I could introduce you to. I'm sure you'd all get along." "And now we come to the future," Methos sighed, crossing his arms. "Oh, what will you do when the Goa'uld are gone? And with only five hundred of you to help instill all that freedom and justice the galaxy so obviously requires. Pretty big job, huh? Shame all the Goa'uld dominated worlds are incapable of helping you out. They've been deliberately kept primitive after all. Believing, unreasonable though it sounds to us, that anyone with glowing eyes and too much vibrato in their voice might just be a god. It'll take a long time to educate them away from that nonsense. And trust me on this one, Garshaw, they'll butcher the lot of you before they allow you to strip them of their gods. More importantly, they'll hate you for it if you even try. "But you know that, don't you?" Methos cocked his head, smiling as if he were about to share a secret. "Deep down inside you know you can't control it all. So as a stop gap you'll masquerade as benevolent gods. Nice gods who've overcome the evil System Lords. And you'll think you're still good, because instead of just taking what you want, you'll ask the people for willing hosts this time. And naquada. Don't forget you need it just as much as the Goa'uld. So you'll have to keep a watchful eye on all the worlds with mines. And other resources. Five hundred Tok'ra can hardly be expected to bring freedom and justice to an entire galaxy without supplies. And--" "Enough, Methos, please!" the Grand Counsel whispered, looking distraught. "That is not the path we wish to take." "But, Garshaw, it is the path you are on." "Then tell us what to do!" she pleaded. "We have asked you to come to us. To lead us. We would welcome you with open arms. Why do you deny us your wisdom?" "Because you want a god. And I've been there and done that, Garshaw." Methos smiled slyly. "And while the Goa'uld only pretend to be gods, by their standards we," he gestured toward himself and the others, "truly are. And that is not the path we are on." "Then you would serve the Tau'ri," the Grand Counsel nodded resignedly. "No," he told her forcefully. "We are the Tau'ri. They are our people and Earth is our world. Their fight is our fight. Understand that and you may just find the right path to walk on." She stared at him for a long moment and finally nodded. "I will think on what you have said. Speak with the Council. Perhaps you would be kind enough, on rare occasions, to offer us advice?" "Perhaps," he agreed distantly. "You'll need to get the permission of my CO of course, but Colonel O'Neill has great insight. You never know, he might be able to solve your problems for you -- from time to time." Methos watched her face, knowing he'd just upped the ante. Finally, Garshaw sighed. "You are a most difficult man to understand. And I apologize if we have in any way offended you and your...recruits." She still didn't get it, Methos thought with an inward shrug, but he could always hope. "Farewell, Garshaw." He nodded once and turned back to face the others. As a unit they saluted him then one by one paused to salute O'Neill as they headed for the gate. "Nice," Jack commented as Methos fell in beside him. "Well spoken indeed," Teal'c added. "Not too long winded?" the Immortal asked. "Maybe just a little," Jack replied. "You could have taken a breath once or twice. But other than that..." Methos rolled his eyes. "I think you've earned the right to ditch the skins -- and the spandex. You were a lot of things, Methos. So... Just be who you are." Chapter 26 The party hadn't turned out quite as the de Valicourts had planned, Methos noted ironically. He hadn't been the only one concerned about showing up in their "native" costume obviously. He supposed not many Immortals wanted to admit that they'd been pretty low down on the social register at the time of their first death. And in those days the clothing really did make the woman or the man. Amanda, for one, had worn a noblewoman's dress, rather than, as she'd put it, "the usual dusty rags." And Ptahsennes, who could be consistently counted on to champion the old ways, was in full priestly regalia, as opposed to the simple loin wrap that had been the uniform of his youth -- though his excuse had been the chilly Colorado weather. Only the de Valicourts, MacLeod, and Alexander had chosen to be as accurate as possible. Then again, Methos mused, they'd been at the top of the heap when they had lived and died. For himself, Methos had chosen a comfortable pair of slacks and a double-knit pullover, pleading a dearth of accurate materials. After all, rhinos were on the endangered species list -- so was spandex for that matter, now that the disco years were over and done with. He sauntered past the drinks table, grabbing a bottle of some domestic brew still silently amazed over who seemed to be becoming fast friends with whom. Robert and Ptahsennes, perpetually nostalgic types, had hit it off, which wasn't too surprising now that he thought about it. But Bra'tac and Amanda? Cierdwyn and Teal'c? It boggled the mind, Methos thought, or maybe they had other reasons than those he knew. He nodded to Hammond as he moved across the room, smiling as he overheard Alex asking the general, "When all this is over, sir, you think you could get me into the space program?" And the general's reply, "I'll look into it -- son." MacLeod caught his eye and Methos sighed in despair as the Highlander made his way deliberately toward him. "You want to tell me what happened between you two?" MacLeod asked quietly after cornering him near the hall closet. The de Valicourts had leased a rambling old house done in some bucolic style on a fairly large piece of property with a man made lake just outside the city proper. A little "getaway place" Gina had called it when she'd given Methos directions to the party. Methos frowned, not wanting to discuss his odd relationship with Cassandra just now. "It's a party, MacLeod. Why not celebrate the fact that we aren't actively trying to kill each other?" "I would," MacLeod agreed. "Except Cassandra's very vulnerable right now. So if you're playing some kind of game here..." Methos grimaced disgustedly. "Sometimes, MacLeod, you can be such a fool! I know she's vulnerable. Why do think I arranged for her to meet Cierdwyn? And foot the bill!" "I know." MacLeod's smile was beatific. "Cierdwyn called me when I didn't show at the church. I just wanted to hear you admit to having an altruistic moment." Methos pushed away from the wall. "Oh, grow up," he muttered and stalked down the hall to Robert's study. Without bothering to turn on the lights, Methos flung himself down on a big leather couch and stared out the large bay window that overlooked the lake. It was quiet in here, and peaceful. Maybe he should take Jack up on that offer to go fishing after all. He wasn't much for fishing, but a little reading retreat might be nice. Things had definitely been uncomfortable with the others since they'd all got back. This latest run in with MacLeod only one of many painful examples. His friends might know intellectually what Captain Pierson had been about, but that didn't stop them from despising him for playing the tyrant -- and reminding Methos, however obliquely of that fact. At least Jack wouldn't pick at the scab covering his too raw emotions. And there was that other little problem he had now. O'Neill's immortality. God, the idea made him shake every time he thought about it. A soft knock at the door distracted him and Methos tiredly sighed. "Yes?" he called out. "I was looking for you," Cassandra said quietly as she came in and gently closed the door. She leaned back against it for a long moment then moved to stand by the window -- a study in shadow and moonlight. The sight of her was disturbing and Methos looked away. She'd chosen to wear a simple, floor length white dress, cinched at the waist and heavily embroidered in gold thread at the wrists and neck. It was too evocative of the dress he'd had made for her and the golden baubles he'd tossed her way after one particularly vicious raid. He wondered vaguely if she was even aware of it, but the thought faded as he realized it wasn't his place to say. "You have not told Colonel O'Neill what he is," she stated simply. Methos shook his head. "I'm thinking it's a bad idea, actually." She turned her gaze on him and smiled. "I agree." "You do?" Methos' eyes went wide. Cassandra nodded. "He isn't part of the Game. He's... I don't know what he is, but if he doesn't need to prepare for Challenge then he should be left to find his own way." Methos smiled wryly. "He's an Ancient. Or will be, one day." She gave him an incredulous stare. "One of Father's little jokes on me, I suppose you could call it," he explained. "I can't really tell you about it, but I went back and checked the mission reports. Apparently, Tok'ra 'slimed' Jack on his way out. At least, that's how O'Neill described it. Carter reported the Quickening passed right through him. I'm guessing Tok'ra altered O'Neill's genetic code in the same way the Ancients originally altered theirs -- back when they were just plain old human." "But why?" Cassandra asked, horrified. "To give him such pain... The burden of eternity." Methos shook his head. "Tok'ra wouldn't have seen it that way. He asked O'Neill to look after me and Jack agreed." Her brows rose in consternation. "You are the last man who needs looking after. Why would Tok'ra think you did?" Methos shifted uncomfortably. "He was nearly half a million years old when he died, Cassandra. In his mind, I'm still just a kid." She burst out laughing and Methos grimaced. "Told you so. It was his little joke. O'Neill looks after me while I get to look after him -- for eternity." "And neither of you ever needs to be lonely," she added softly. "Eternal friendship, Methos. There's a great deal to be said for it." "Whatever," he muttered. "But I don't want to tell him. Not just yet, anyway. Like you said, he doesn't need to know in order to live. And knowing will change him profoundly. I know Jack. He'd start taking risks he normally wouldn't in order to protect his people. Risks that might get others inadvertently killed or injured because he stopped thinking conservatively. He'd never forgive himself if that happened." "My thoughts exactly," Cassandra nodded. "He's a good and caring man, Colonel O'Neill. The knowledge would be...distracting." They lapsed into a comfortable silence, neither wanting to break the almost magical peace they'd found between them. Finally, Cassandra sighed. They both knew there had to be an end to this. "Why were you kind to me, Methos? Do you know how much damage that did?" Methos closed his eyes and bit his lip. He'd been wondering how long it would take for her to get to this. "I know now," he answered softly. "But then..." he shook his head. "It was because you were kind to me." "When?" she demanded. Methos smiled to remember it. "You made me ink when I was running out. And not the cheap runny stuff I'd bought from some Assyrian traders. But good ink. A thousand years later when I recopied that journal it still hadn't faded. You didn't need to do that. And I would never have known to ask it of you." Cassandra shook her head, laughing softly at the irony. "I spilled the last of your ink and knew you'd kill me. That's why I made it. And better than what you'd had so you wouldn't even think to look for the other." "Oh." Methos felt a pain in his chest where that hadn't been one before and wondered at the many ways a man could delude himself. "But you did take that pile of loot I'd collected and made a barren field tent into a home. It was lovely and restful. Even Caspian was envious of me." "I had to sleep on that pile, remember?" Cassandra snorted. "What a load of junk you had in there. I got tired of having pot handles and lamp stands poking me. Spread out, I could sleep on the carpets." The knife went in just a little further, but Methos took a deep breath, leaned forward and tried again. "No matter what I said to Kronos, you did bring me the best food in camp." Then he smiled ruefully and shook his head. "Because you had to eat it too, didn't you?" A small, sad smile played at Cassandra's lips. "Had it been so long since anyone at all had been kind to you that you mistook simple slaves' tricks for genuine feelings?" "Apparently," Methos whispered, his throat closing painfully. Cassandra took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Moving from her place at the window she went to stand before him. "I know now that you never meant to confuse me," she nodded. "And I can see for myself that you have changed. You are not the man you were. Yet, I can never forget what you did, Methos. Nor," she added with finality, "can we ever be friends. But," she went on, laying a hand atop Methos' head in an age old gesture as he bowed his neck. "I do forgive you," she whispered softly. "Go in peace and know prosperity, old one." The floodgates opened and it seemed as if five thousand years of unshed tears suddenly decided to flow out of him. He barely knew she'd gone by the time he knelt on the floor exhausted from his weeping. So much grief, so much happiness. Methos didn't know which emotion he should be feeling only that he felt them keenly. He ached where one hope had been abandoned and where another one might one day take its place. A weight had been lifted and yet he was loath to part company with it, for it had been with him so long he could not remember living without it. Yet still, Methos felt a shifting inside him. As if those anguished souls which had ridden him for ages had suddenly departed. He'd accepted his past and put it behind him, true. But he'd never found it within himself to forgive his actions. But Cassandra had, and he was somehow the better for it now. With a sigh, Methos wiped his face dry and got to his feet, opening the window to get some air. He breathed deeply, trying to calm his wildly beating heart, until at last the sounds of the night and the stillness of the lake beyond soothed away the last of his sobs. Epilogue O'Neill waited nearly an hour by the study door, giving Methos time to pull himself together and making certain no one accidentally walked in. He wasn't quite sure what had happened, but he'd seen Cassandra's expression as she'd left the room and O'Neill didn't think she'd deliberately hurt him. And while he might not be able to shed his own tears, O'Neill had known the sound of grieving long enough in his career to recognize and respect that ability in others. He gave it a little while after the sobbing had died down and went to grab a couple of beers. The hour was late and the party was breaking up, though most of the Immortals didn't seem eager to leave. O'Neill wasn't surprised, good teams were like that. It was the attrition rate that ruined everything. He went back to the study and quietly opened the door, surreptitiously checking on Methos. O'Neill nodded to himself. The man looked calm and was thoughtfully gazing out the window. "The party's over," O'Neill commented as he stepped inside and casually handed the other man a beer. "There's a song in there somewhere," Methos murmured, raising his bottle to Jack and then to his lips. O'Neill said nothing, leaning against the other edge of the window waiting patiently for Methos to speak. "I keep thinking about fishing," Methos finally said, absently running a finger along the edge of one pane. "Well, if a man's gotta think about something..." O'Neill nodded appreciatively. "The offer's still open if you're interested." "Not that kind of fishing," Methos grinned. "But I'll keep it in mind." He sighed as the breeze picked up and the scent of freshwater and green things wafted toward him. "I was thinking about that story in the bible. You know, the one where Christ tells Peter and some of the other disciples to leave everything and come be fishers of men. I've always looked at it in terms of what they'd left behind. Respectability, family, friends..." "A steady income," O'Neill muttered, his brow creasing as he wondered where this conversation was going. "Yeah, stuff like that," Methos agreed. "I always knew it meant more, of course. Not so much leaving it all behind, but unburdening oneself to move forward, but I never felt it, you know? It just seemed...incomprehensible. I always identified with the other guys. The ones who wanted to say goodbye to their fathers or get their affairs in order before leaving -- the ones Jesus said weren't yet ready to follow him." "You wanna go to a revival meeting?" Methos laughed softly. "No," he said decisively. "I was just thinking about what Peter and the others must have felt when they went off. One minute they had homes, families and possessions; real weighty responsibilities in those days. Very heavy on the obligation. And the next they didn't. I didn't understand how they could just leave. I mean, it's what I did -- fairly frequently. But not because I wanted to. I wanted to be the man who got to stay and keep everything. Put down roots and never leave. But religious questions aside," he shrugged. "Maybe all that weighty responsibility was just holding them back. Maybe it was a weight they hated, but couldn't see a way to escape. Maybe they were just waiting for an excuse to leave." "Maybe," O'Neill repeated. "Too bad we'll never know." "Yeah," Methos frowned. "I really should've asked Peter when he baptized me." Jack choked on his beer and stood there coughing. "Yeah," he wheezed when he could finally speak. "Maybe." "Anyway," Methos shrugged. "I keep thinking about what it's like not to have to any of the emotional baggage we carry around with us. To just lay it aside and know you can forgive yourself for doing it. Not just to forget about it -- you can avoid thinking about anything if you really want to. But to actually feel no responsibility for it whatsoever. How does one achieve that blessed state without someone like Christ around to say it's okay?" "Who said they didn't feel it?" Jack asked soberly. "Maybe they felt it, but it just didn't matter anymore because they knew their families forgave them." Methos cocked his head, staring out the window as if he'd just had a sudden revelation. He closed his eyes, smiling wryly. "I should have thought of that," he admitted, glancing at Jack. "When the one you've wronged forgives you, you can forgive yourself anything." "Almost anything," O'Neill told him. "No one's forgiven you those six thousand pushups, Pierson, and you'd better not forget it." Methos laughed delightedly. He was fairly certain Jack knew what he was saying, but had used the opportunity to remind him that no matter what happened he still had a place -- one that carried its own duties and responsibilities. More importantly, they were obligations which somehow helped to fill the empty space inside him that Cassandra's forgiveness had left in its wake. "I won't forget," Methos responded gravely. "In fact," he added brightly. "I'll give you fifty every morning even while we're fishing." "Fishing. Now there's a thought," O'Neill smiled cheerfully, laying a hand on Methos' shoulder and steering him toward the door. "So, what kind of fish are you interested in? Bass, lake trout... You name it and I'll show you where to catch it." "Oh, don't worry about me," Methos demurred. "I'm just going for the view and the reading. You'll be doing all the real fishing." "Already did that," O'Neill drawled laconically, opening the door and grinning widely at him. "I seem to have caught me a big ole minion!"