Rated NC-17 for graphic (m/f) sexual content written in loving detail. If you can't handle that, don't read it. If you can't handle that and you read it anyway, don't complain to me. Highlander is a trademark of Rysher Entertainment, characters not used by permission. No infringement is intended. This work is not to be marketed for profit. Note: This story is sort of a sidebar to the Firebird Suite stories though not exactly a sequel. WARNING! Songfic. Bail Now if that squicks you. --Kellie Matthews

Everything Must Change
© 1996 Kellie Matthews

        It wasn't usually hot in Seacouver. Normally the weather tended toward cool and sunny, but for the past week it had been unbearable, the air thick with humidity and the temperatures in the low nineties. Despite the humidity, the fire-danger in the surrounding mountains was sky high. In Joe's Bar, it seemed the same. Everyone was short-tempered and out of sorts. The customers were complaining more and tipping less than usual, half the wait staff had called in sick, and the band Joe had just hired hadn't shown up for their set so he'd had to fill in for them himself. Not that he'd minded that so much, he always liked to play, but he preferred to be prepared. Still, the crowd had seemed to settle down a little in response to his music, and a few couples had even gotten up and danced.
        To top off a perfect day, after he'd finished, he'd gone to the back room to relax and found a message on his machine from European Watcher HQ alerting him that Sam Hayes hadn't checked in for over six weeks. For a moment the news had thrown him back to earlier in the year, to the sickening feeling of seeing name after name appear on the roster of agents with the words "Deceased" next to them; but Tanner Dane was gone, Duncan had taken care of him, and so far as he knew, there were no other Immortals taking Watcher heads. He tried to remember who Sam's current assignment was, and the name wasn't long in coming. Though now she went by the name Nira Groves, the chronicles knew her simply as Metanira, and her birth had predated the Common Era by scant handful of years. Joe wondered idly if Methos knew her. Surely they had met, both of them being among the older Immortals living.
        As a child she had been pledged a priestess of Ceres, and had remained one all her life. Like Darius she had devoted her life to her religion, but unlike him she had never cloistered herself. Claiming that as a priestess any place she set her foot was holy ground, she had, amazingly, succeeded in avoiding the sword. Joe still couldn't believe that every Immortal would respect that idea, but apparently whatever happened to an Immortal who killed on Holy Ground was bad enough that no one wanted to risk finding out if she was bluffing.
        Still, being her watcher wasn't what he would call dangerous. Her previous watcher had left the post because they wanted someone more interesting. The watcher before that had retired in his sixties, rarely having witnessed anything more exciting than a heated conversation between his charge and another Immortal. She lived simply, and rather dully. He'd warned Sam about that when he'd taken the post, but Sam had insisted that it was what he wanted. Maybe he'd just gotten bored and taken off. Joe hoped that was the case.
        A soft knock at the door caught his attention and he looked up as the door swung open, and Mike stuck his head around the corner.
        "Closing time, boss," he said. "I'd lock up, but you've got a lady waiting to see you."
        Joe was startled. "Me?"
        "She asked for Joe Dawson; last time I checked, that was you."
        "Thanks, Mike. I'll see what she wants." Wondering who it was, Joe levered himself to a standing position, feeling the aches of a day's stresses in his hips and thighs. With a slight wince he grabbed his cane and leaned on it as he walked. Who'd be coming to see him? Amanda? No, Mike knew Amanda and he'd have said if it was her. It was probably someone here on Watcher business. God knew they had no sense of appropriate hours at which to conduct business. He hadn't realized it was so late, but a quick glance at his watch told him it was a quarter after two. He stepped from the office and looked around the now-deserted bar, feeling a warm sense of pride. The bookstore might have been a more prestigious cover for a Watcher, but the bar was *his*.
        Remembering why he'd left the office, he glanced around again, this time more carefully, looking for the woman who'd come to find him. He almost missed her, her dress a shade of brown that blended with the shadows around the table. She wasn't familiar to him. She looked to be in her mid-thirties, and was almost plain of feature. She had dark, thick hair which she wore parted in the center and drawn back into a plain chignon at the nape of her neck. Her face was oval, her skin slightly olive, her nose and chin just a little strong. Her wide mouth was set in a solemn line, and her surprisingly light gray eyes regarded him gravely as he made his way to her table.
        "I'm Joe Dawson, what can I do for you?"
        "There is nothing you need do for me, but I have something for you," she said quietly, her voice startlingly melodious. She had a slight accent, one he could not quite place, though it might be Middle-Eastern, or maybe Russian. It was dark, and husky, and made him think of Marlene Dietrich movies and old blues standards. She reached into the large leather bag at her side and drew out an object. He started as he recognized the leather cover with its incised sigil. A chronicle. He'd been right, it was Watcher business.
        "A friend asked me to bring this to you. He said I was to give it to no one else, and that I should tell you goodbye for him."
        Her speech was curiously formal. Almost mechanically he reached for the book and opened it to the first page. Unfamiliar, spidery copperplate spelled out a single name across the top, and below that the words 'Athens, May 15, 1868.' He frowned and flipped through the pages, watching the handwriting change several times as different Watchers took over the journal, until he reached the latest entries, dated only a few weeks earlier, with a location header that was mostly consonants. The handwriting there was a familiar looping scrawl.
        "Where did you get this?" he demanded, a sinking feeling beginning to creep through him.
        "Samuel gave it to me, when he realized he was not going to be able to give it to you himself."
        Though she pronounced his name oddly, almost 'Samel,' Joe had no doubt who she spoke of, and her words confirmed his fears. His hands tightened convulsively on the book he held. "He's dead, isn't he?"
        She nodded, her clear eyes softened with sympathy and the sheen of tears. "I am sorry, I wish I had better news for you. He was a good man, and a friend. It is hard when they go, especially so young."
        Young? Sam Hayes had been six years his senior, certainly older than the woman before him. He studied her again, frowning. "Who are you?"
        She studied him equally intently, seeming a little surprised. "I thought you would know, or I would have told you before, my name is Nira Groves."
        Joe gaped at her, stunned. Though he'd gotten rather used to hanging out with Immortals, it wasn't every day one of them waltzed into his bar and handed him their own chronicle. After a moment he managed to close his mouth and he shook his head in disbelief.
        "Well, this is a new one for me. I'd introduce myself but you seem to know my name already."
        She smiled a little. "Samel told me a great deal about you."
        Joe thought about all the things Sam might have told her and winced. "Oh great."
        The smile broadened, and he found himself oddly attracted to her. She wasn't drop-dead gorgeous, but there was a depth to her smile that was very compelling.
        "He was very complimentary, don't worry."
        "Yeah, right, I'll just bet he was." Joe had known Sam for more than thirty years, and had his suspicions about what he might have told her about him.
        The smile became a laugh. "He said you would say something like that."
        Joe rubbed his forehead and looked at her ruefully. "Oh god... predictable... I'm predictable!" he moaned.
        She laughed at that. "Not so much to me, but to Sam." Her face suddenly shadowed as she said his name. Joe felt a reflection of that shadow in himself.
        "How did it happen?" he asked quietly.
        She sighed deeply, and looked over to where Mike stood, quietly drying glasses before putting them away. Joe understood, and lifted his head to call over to his co-worker.
        "It's okay, Mike. You can go on home now."
        Even though Mike, too, was a Watcher, some things were personal and best not overheard. Joe wondered if he'd heard their visitor introduce herself. He hoped not. He had a bad enough reputation in the organization as it was, what with Duncan, Richie and Amanda walking in and out of his life at the drop of a hat. Fortunately they hadn't yet twigged to the fact that Adam Pierson was Methos. That would be the final straw. It was strange, for centuries Watchers had gone undetected by their quarry, or so they had thought, now suddenly it seemed like every other Immortal he met knew about them. Maybe the time was just right. The universe had a way of doing that. Whether or not he had heard, Mike nodded and headed for the door, nodding good-night to both of them as he left. Joe thought about sitting down, then decided he needed something to bolster him against the news he was going to receive.
        "Can I get you anything?" he asked.
        Nira looked thoughtfully toward the bar. "I don't suppose you have ouzo," she asked in a slightly wistful tone.
        Joe shook his head, knowing the thick, resinous wine wasn't something he stocked. "No, sorry. It's not much called for here."
        She nodded, "I suspected as much. Perhaps a Sambuca?"
        "That I can do." He made his way over to the bar and poured himself a double bourbon, and her a Sambuca, reaching into the freezer to dig a couple of espresso beans out of the bag they kept there. As he floated them on the liquor, Nira stood up and came over to the bar. She was shorter than he had expected, only about five-three. Her brown dress was almost a 1950's style, with a long, flared skirt and slightly tailored bodice. Though he suspected it was unintentional, the sable fabric flowed beautifully over the full curves of her breasts and hips. She seated herself on one of the stools and reached for the glass with the coffee beans in it.
        "A traditionalist, I see," she remarked as she touched one of the beans with fingertip, causing it to sink below the surface for a moment.
        "In some ways," Joe acknowledged. "But traditional just seemed appropriate for you."
        She smiled a little, lifting her gaze to his for a brief moment. Had she been someone else he would have said the look was a little shy, but no one could possibly be shy after having been around for over two-thousand years. . . could they? He took a sip of his drink, savored it, swallowed, and forced himself to ask again the question he didn't really want the answer to.
        "What happened to Sam?"
        She stared at him for a moment, then picked up her drink and drained it in a single gulp, then pushed it across the bar toward him. "More?"
        He nodded and refilled the glass as she began to speak.
        "You know what I do, yes?"
        He nodded. "You run one of those 'feed the world' groups, right? As I recall you also sponsor a lot of agricultural research into crops that will grow in places where other crops can't."
        She nodded. "In this day and age it's the only way I have of openly giving honor to my Lady."
        He was puzzled for a moment before he realized what she was talking about. No matter what else she was, she still considered herself a priestess of a goddess who hadn't been worshipped in thousands of years. Or at least, not by many people, he corrected himself, realizing that there was still at least one person who did. But what did her work have to do with Sam's death? As if reading his mind, Nira spoke again.
        "I had heard stories of a plant with great nutritive value that grew in arid mountain areas in South America, where the soil is thin and unproductive. I became rather obsessed with finding it. I spent several months searching for someone who knew the plant and could guide me, and finally found someone. By then it was late fall where we were heading, but I had to go then, I couldn't wait. Sam had to go with me, of course, he had to write in that stupid book. After the four-wheel-drives couldn't deal with the terrain, we switched to horses. It was very rough going, and I should have seen that he was in trouble, but I didn't. We were at high altitude, the weather was bad, and we were pushing ourselves to find the plants before the snows made it impossible."
        She paused, and grabbed the glass, downing her second shot of Sambuca as quickly as she had her first before she could bring herself to continue. Unasked, he once more refilled her glass, suspecting she would need it. He added a splash of bourbon to his own drink, whose level had been steadily declining as he listened. She took a deep breath, and continued.
        "That last day, I finally noticed he was looking ill. I asked if he was all right, and he insisted that he was. I let him convince me, though I've looked at the face of death often enough that I should have recognized it staring back at me. We went on. Some time into our ride, he slipped from the saddle. I didn't even realize it at first, he was the last one in the party, and I rode at the front. It wasn't until I wanted to ask him about a story he'd been telling me the night before that I realized he was missing. We turned back at once, and found him within minutes, but there was nothing we could do. He was dying."
        "His heart?" Joe asked. That was why he'd taken Sam off his previous assignment. He'd had a heart attack eight years earlier, and Joe had given him Nira as a replacement, knowing she was an easy one. Sam had gone off with strict instructions from his doctor to watch his diet and get regular exercise, but Joe had his doubts that any of those things had occurred. Sam wasn't the type to take advice.
        Nira nodded, and lifted her gaze to his, her eyes gleaming with unshed tears. "Why did he not tell me he had difficulties with his heart? I would never have let him go if I had known!"
        Joe shook his head and reached over to cover her hand with his own. "He wouldn't have wanted to say. It wasn't his way. He was too proud and stubborn to say anything."
        "And now he is dead because of me," she said, her voice and throat taut.
        "No! Not because of you." Joe's hand tightened on hers. "He must have known, he wasn't stupid. He chose to go that way."
        She pulled her hand away from his and picked up her glass. He could see the tremor in her hand reflected in the shivering surface of the clear liquid within. She drained it as she had the first two, then carefully set it down. The lady could certainly put it away. Of course, it wasn't like it was going to hurt her. He had one more question to ask, and he poured another measure of the anise-flavored liquor into her glass, hoping she would answer it.
        "Did Sam tell you about us then, so you'd bring the chronicle home?"
        She shook her head. "No. I've known about you for much longer than that. A friend had told me of your existence when I was half as old as I am now. He had become friends with his Watcher, and thought perhaps I too might like someone with whom I could speak freely. I did try, but the one who Watched me then was not the type one could confide in. He was very disapproving of what I was."
        "Your Immortality?" Joe asked, only a little surprised. He'd recently come to realized that there were more Watchers with that mindset than he had ever suspected. Nira shook her head.
        "No, of my religion. He was a very devout Christian and found me to be a godless pagan." She smiled. "I could hardly dispute that, as I am. So, I had to wait for a more open-minded vigilant before I could take my friend's advice."
        Joe shook his head, smiling. "I don't suppose your informant's name was Adam, was it?"
        She shook her head, puzzled. "No, why do you ask?"
        "Nothing, go on. How did you and Sam meet?"
        "It was shortly after Impatient Eric went away that I noticed him watching me. I watched him in return until I saw the mark on his wrist and knew for certain what he was."
        Joe chuckled at her name for Eric Berkeley, the Watcher Sam had replaced. It was quite appropriate.
        "Then what did you do?"
        "I walked up to him and told him if he was going to spend his time watching me, he might as well come up to the house and be comfortable doing it. I'm afraid I startled him a bit."
        Joe laughed. "I can imagine! I was a bit startled myself when you told me who you were. It's not every day an Immortal walks up and introduces themselves."
        She frowned a little, puzzled. "But I thought you were like Sam. He told me you have Immortal friends."
        Joe cleared his throat uncomfortably. So, Sam had heard that? Joe hadn't mentioned it, so he had to have gotten it through the grapevine. Not good. "Yeah, well... but I didn't think it was exactly a widespread phenomenon."
        "It's more so than you might think."
        "I'm beginning to realize that. So, you were. . . friends?" He winced a little as he realized the implication his pause had given his question. Damn. That was really subtle.
        She tactfully ignored it. "We were friends, after awhile, and in our own fashion. He was a very opinionated man, and not very tactful, as well as having some rather ridiculous ideas of what was proper for a woman."
        Joe winced. "Yeah, I can imagine," he said, remembering some of the four-times-divorced Sam's views on women. Some of them started with "on her knees" or "on her back." Hopefully he hadn't mentioned those. It wasn't wise to piss off people who carry swords.
        "Still, we got along quite well most of the time, and it was good to have someone other than my own kind to talk to openly. I miss him. I miss him very much." Her voice broke on the last word and she picked up her drink, gulping it with a speed at odds with her ladylike manner and appearance. Setting the glass back down she sighed.
        "I should go. I only wanted to bring you the book and tell you about Samel." She leaned over, he guessed to pick up her bag, and he watched, bemused, as she just kept right on leaning until she fell off the stool. He stood frozen in place for a moment, then hurried around to the other side of the bar. She was sitting on the floor next to her satchel, looking very puzzled. Her skirt was rucked up on one side, exposing a nicely shaped thigh, there was a dirty spot on her forehead where it had obviously hit the floor, and several strands of hair had come loose from her chignon to hang in corkscrew curls along one side of her face.
        "I seem to have fallen off my chair," she said, enunciating carefully.
        Joe wasn't sure how he managed to keep a straight face as he realized Nira Groves was as drunk as the proverbial skunk. He'd thought that she had been drinking like an old pro, when in reality she'd been drinking like someone who had no idea what they were doing. Four shots of high-test had done her in. Steadying himself with a hand on the bar, he extended his other hand down to her.
        "May I help you up?" he asked gallantly.
        She focused on his hand, and smiled. "Thank you." She reached up and took it, and he pulled steadily until she regained her footing, albeit a little unsteadily. She leaned against a stool as she reached back down for her bag, this time managing to snag it and return to an upright position without too much difficulty.
        "What do I owe you?" she asked, fumbling with the catch.
        He shook his head. "Not a thing, it was my pleasure."
        She giggled. "You're a very nice man."
        Joe bit his lip to keep from laughing and nodded solemnly. "All my friends say so."
        "Good." She took three wobbly steps toward the door, then stopped, turning around. "I liked your music. It made me feel strange inside, sad, but happy at the same time."
        It might not have been the most eloquent compliment he'd ever gotten, but it was sincere, and he felt the warm, full feeling that knowing he'd touched someone always gave him.
        "Thank you, ma'am."
        She looked at him for a moment longer, then sighed, her expression going wistful. He expected her to speak, but she didn't, instead she turned and progressed toward the door again, still unsteady on her feet. He thought of her like this, on the streets at three a.m. in an unfamiliar city, and alarm filled him suddenly. She would be at risk from both mortal and Immortal predators. And if she'd driven herself she was a threat to others.
        "Ms. Groves?" he called.
        She turned quickly, and almost overbalanced herself. After a moment of flailing for balance, she managed to steady herself as he caught up to where she stood. "Yes?"
        "May I drive you back to your hotel?" he offered.
        "Hotel?" she queried blankly.
        "Or wherever you're staying." he amended.
        "Staying?" she said, just as blankly.
        "You are staying somewhere, aren't you?"
        She frowned thoughtfully. "I must be, mustn't I?"
        He stifled a chuckle. She was pretty far gone. It was kind of amusing, though he felt a little guilty for having not realized she was a novice drinker. "Check your purse, maybe you have a hotel key."
        Nira nodded and opened her bag, pawing through it, but came up empty-handed. She shrugged. "No matter. I will find a place."
        "I'll find you a place," he said, guiding her toward the door. "I can't let you out on the streets like this."
        She looked down at herself. "Like what? Issa nice dress."
        He chuckled. "It's a very nice dress, but that wasn't what I meant. Have you ever been drunk before?"
        She studied him thoughtfully, and finally shook her head. "'Don' think so."
        Joe sighed. "I was afraid of that." He caught her arm as she wandered a couple of steps down the street. "Stay right there while I finish this. . ." he said, reaching to bolt the door, still trying to absorb the concept that a woman with two millennia under her belt could possibly have never gotten drunk before.
        "Drunk. Well, new s'periences are always good," she said philosophically, if slurrily.
        "No, some aren't, and that's why I don't want you wandering around on the streets like this. Come on, you can stay the night at my place. It's not the Ritz-Carlton, but it'll do in pinch, and that's the only way I can be sure you're safe until you're sober. I couldn't live with myself if someone took your head because I got you drunk and you couldn't defend yourself."
        "Don' need t' defend m'self, " she said, her speech increasingly thick. "Holy Ground." she pointed at the sidewalk to emphasize her words.
        "Sweetheart, one of these days you're going to meet up with someone who doesn't buy that, and you're going to be in real trouble."
        "Haven' yet."
        "Times are getting meaner," he said succinctly. "There are fewer around like you and MacLeod, and more like Kalas and his ilk. Come on, this way, no, not that one, the blue one"
        He steered her away from the red Taurus she'd headed for and led her over to his own car and opened the passenger door. She started to sit, and he gently used one hand to guide her head carefully under the doorframe when it looked like she was going to hit it as she got in. He walked around to the other side and got in, and they drove to his house in silence, though she was humming a bit of some tune off and on, and seemed bemused by the streetlights.
        He parked in front of the house, glad that he had the lights on a timer. Somehow it just seemed more welcoming to come home to a lit house. She opened her door and nearly fell out. He shook his head in amusement as she managed to steady herself and pull herself to her feet using the door. They made quite a pair as they ascended the stairs. Halfway up he thought perhaps he should have taken her around back to the ramp, but it was too late by that point. They both managed to get to the porch unscathed, and she stared around as he unlocked the door. Her gaze was caught by the front window and she pointed at it.
        He wasn't sure if she was referring to the diamond-shaped leading along the upper part of the bay window, or the overall effect of the greenery that filled the big enclosure. Whichever it was, he smiled.
        "Thanks, I like it."
        He pushed the door open and gestured for her to precede him. She did, and headed straight for the plants. That answered his question. She stood, sniffing the plants, stroking their leaves as if they were pets instead of vegetation. Their presence seemed to invigorate her.
        "Welcome to my humble abode," he said, at a loss for what to say. He didn't often have visitors who were neither family or friend. "I'll just go put some sheets on the spare bed and you can hit the hay."
        "Pou inei toualeta?" she asked.
        He blinked, puzzled. "What?"
        "Pou inei. . ." she paused, and tried again. "Ou est la pissoir?"
        That one he knew, having spent a lot of time chasing MacLeod around France. He laughed, realizing she was too soused to keep her languages straight, and pointed to the hallway. "Second door on the left."
        She nodded and headed for it. He pulled some sheets out of the linen closet and set about making the bed. He was almost finished when he heard the bathroom door open.
        "Mr. Dawson?" Nira called, sounding a little lost. He stepped into the doorway so she could see where he was.
        "In here, and call me Joe. Mr. Dawson's somebody's grandfather... holy shit!"
        His friendly invitation ended in an involuntary exclamation as he saw that she'd appropriated one of his tank-style undershirts to wear as a nightgown. It hung loosely on her small frame, and though it covered more than some of Amanda's outfits, the neck and deep-cut armholes would have revealed a great deal of skin had it not been for the unruly cloud of dark, spiralling curls that covered her shoulders and breasts. He was thoroughly embarrassed to realize she must have gotten the shirt out of the laundry hamper in the bathroom.
        "I'd have loaned you a clean one," he muttered as she dropped her sensible flats on the floor by the desk, and managed on the third try to drape her dress over the ladder-backed chair. Her task accomplished, she steadied herself against the wall before replying.
        "I don'. . ." she stopped and corrected herself carefully, ". . .don't want to trouble you," she said, eyes fixed on her feet. "I am a nuisance."
         "No you're not. It's my fault you're in the state you're in. I'm a bartender, I should know better." He turned back the covers and patted the bed. "Here you go, plant yourself."
        She carefully wove her way over to the bed and sat down where his palm had left a slight indentation in the taut sheets. He tried not to notice that the undershirt slid all the way up to her hips as she swung her feet into the bed, but the quick glimpse told him that her dark curls were natural. A little surprised by the surge of interest his body expressed, he mentally lectured himself for even thinking about it when she was in the state she was in. He started for the door and paused there as she wrapped her arms around the pillow and buried her face in it with a deep sigh. Shaking his head and smiling, he turned off the light.
        "Goodnight, Nira."
        "'G'night, Joe." she said thickly.

* * *

        Joe shifted in his sleep, turning onto his side, and something tickled his nose. He pushed at it sleepily, but it came right back as soon as his hand was gone. Wondering what the hell it was, he reached for the light on the nightstand until he opened his eyes and realized it was already light. Sunlight filtered through the blinds, making hazy dust-stripes in the air. A glance at the clock told him it was nearly eleven-thirty in the morning. Almost simultaneously he realized that the stuff in his face was hair, a lot of it. Thick, dark, curly, and attached to a warm, soft, and very female body. Nira murmured in her sleep and moved closer, her nose burrowing under his chin as one of her arms slid under his, her fingers cool against the skin beneath his arm.
        He spent a fruitless moment trying to remember just when she'd ended up in his bed. He must have been *really* sound asleep to have missed that. Finally, he gave up trying to remember and just enjoyed the feel of her against him. It had been a long time since he'd had a woman in his arms like this. It wouldn't last, but for the moment it was a pleasure to savor. He lay quietly, not wanting to wake her, knowing that as soon as she did, she'd be gone in a cloud of curls and embarrassment. She must have gotten up in the night to use the bathroom, and gotten lost. He should have left the light on for her. It was bad enough being in an unfamiliar house in the dark, let alone being *drunk* in an unfamiliar house in the dark.
        Her hair smelled faintly of lemon and mint. She moved again, and the weight of her breasts came more fully against his chest. He closed his eyes and tried to control his reaction, without a lot of success. He could feel his blood making a beeline for his groin, feel the thickening, the stirring there. His hands itched to move lower, to slide beneath the thin cotton knit and caress the full curves of her hips and buttocks. At that moment it was sheer torture, but it just wasn't in his nature to take advantage of a woman. Besides, he thought with wry amusement, she probably had a sword handy, and after a good eight hours of sleep she'd certainly not be too drunk to use it. With a sigh he let go of her and used his elbows and butt to maneuver himself away from her all-too-enticing form.
        Though he was moving as carefully as he could so as not to wake her, she stirred, giving a soft moan, and lifted her hands to her head, shielding her eyes from what little sunlight there was, muttering something under her breath in a language he didn't recognize. After a moment she lifted her head, or tried to, and let out a groan that sounded thoroughly miserable. He could sympathize, having been there himself on many an occasion. Somehow it was nice to know that even Immortals got hangovers. He didn't want to startle her, but he had to let her know he was there.
        "Feeling a bit under the weather this morning?" he asked gently.
        She gasped and sat bolt upright, dropping her hands from her face to stare at him with wide, bloodshot eyes. Her gaze swept him, the bed, then the room, then she closed her eyes again and flopped back onto the pillow with a wince and an exclamation, again in that language he didn't understand. Her face was beet red.
        "Translation please?" he queried, trying not to sound as amused as he felt.
        "It doesn't translate," she told him.
        "Liar." he returned drily.
        Her eyes opened again, and this time there was a touch of humor in them. "You're absolutely right, but I should not have said it in any language. How long have I been here?"
        He shrugged. "I'm not sure. I just woke up myself."
        An odd mixture of disappointment and relief flashed across her face.
        "I am sorry, you were kind to let me stay here in my drunken state, and I repay you by appropriating your bed. Forgive me?"
        He shook his head, grinning. "No forgiveness required. Truth to tell, I didn't half mind waking up with a lovely lady in my bed."
        The color that had receded from her face flared again and she ducked her head, hiding a little behind her hair for a moment before peeking out again. "You are teasing me?" she asked hesitantly.
        "Just a little," he agreed.
        She smiled. "I thought so. Sometimes Sam teased me too. At first I didn't understand, but now I know what it is."
        Joe resisted the urge to shake his head in amazement. He'd met quite a few Immortals in his day, and observed more at a distance. None of them were like her. She was as different as night and day. He was beginning to see how she could convince an Immortal intent on taking her head that to do so would violate practically the only rule the game had. There was an innocence and otherworldliness about her that was strangely deep.
        Nira ran a hand through her tangled curls and her expression changed to dismay. "Matres! I didn't braid it! I'll never get this untangled."
        "I'll help," he offered.
        She looked askance at him. "Teasing again?"
        He shook his head. "My sister has hair like yours. When we were growing up, if Mom was at work I got called on to help her fix it up for dates. I know how to do it. But I've got to take care of a few things first." He looked meaningfully toward his chair beside the bed, then at the extra-wide door that led into the master bathroom.
        She looked at the wheelchair, then back at him, and he saw the light dawn. She scrambled out of bed, flashing a bit of derriere in the process. "I am so sorry! Forgive me!"
        "Will you cut that out?" he asked, exasperated. "I mean it! There's nothing to be sorry for! Don't you ever say you're sorry again."
        She caught her lower lip between her teeth and gave a small nod. "As you say. It is a bad habit of mine, Sam told me that too. I'll go and dress now." She sidled from the room as if trying to make herself as small as possible.
        As he swung himself out of bed and into his chair, Joe realized that despite the fact that Sam had been a friend, and he hadn't even really had time to grieve his passing, he was getting a little tired of hearing about what Sam had done for Nira Groves. The only thing that made him feel better was a strange certainty that whatever else he had been to her, he hadn't been her lover.

* * *

        Nira had to admit she felt better after downing the fizzy and vile-tasting concoction Joe had handed her through the half-closed door of the room she *should* have woken up in. Of course, it made sense that a bartender would know how to help a "hangover", as he called it. After dressing, it had taken her quite some time to tame her hair with the small brush from her purse. By the time she'd finally managed it, she'd heard him in the kitchen. She'd half expected him to be in his chair, which had to be more comfortable than his artificial legs, but when she came into the kitchen to find him staring into the refrigerator, he'd been upright. He closed the door with a sigh and turned a rueful glance to her.
        "If I'd known I was gonna have company I'd've gone grocery shopping. Not much there but a couple of rock-hard bagels and some condiments, unless you want to count all the science projects."
        "Science projects?" she queried. "I did not know you were a scientist, too. What do you study?"
        He laughed, shaking his head. She liked how he laughed, and how often he did it. "I meant all the leftovers I have in there with mold growing on them. There may be some previously undiscovered life-forms lurking in my refrigerator."
        She laughed, understanding. She'd grown quite a few of those 'cultures' herself over the centuries. "May I take you to breakfast in return for your hospitality?"
        For a moment she thought he was going to refuse, but then he cocked his head slightly to one side and studied her until she felt her color rise under his bright blue gaze, and finally he nodded.
        "You know, I'd like that."
        She felt relieved and pleased at his acceptance. She didn't want to part company with him yet. She felt an odd connection to him, an ease she'd never found with anyone else, not even Sam. At the same time he made her feel things that she'd buried for so long she had thought them gone forever. That warm pulse low in her belly, that tightening in her breasts, the knot of anticipation under her sternum. It had been so long since she'd felt those things, not since Sylvanus had she let herself feel them.
        She pushed away his memory with a shudder and turned to find Joe watching her, his gaze sharp and curious. He knew she'd been remembering. It was a strange feeling to be with someone who knew things like that, especially a mortal. Sam had known some things, but he hadn't been as intelligent as Joe, or as discerning. As if sensing that his interest had disconcerted her, he pushed himself away from the counter he was leaning on and held out a hand.
        "Come on, I know a place with beignets to die for, and their scrambled eggs with andouille are even better. I'll even drive," he offered magnanimously.
        Nira laughed, knowing full well that her rental car was still parked in front of the bar, and took his arm. He guided her out the back door, using his cane only lightly, and she realized why he'd gone that way when she saw the long, gently sloping ramp that led away from the door to a sidewalk that ran the length of the house and ended near where he had parked his car. She wondered how he'd lost his legs. It must have been difficult to adjust to life without them in a world geared toward those who were "whole," whatever that word meant. She'd known many people with two sound limbs who seemed far less whole than Joe Dawson.
        He opened the car door for her and she got in, remembering the feel of his hand on her hair as he'd guided her into the vehicle the night before. She shivered a little as he went around to the other side, and she hoped he hadn't noticed. She thought about his offer to help with her hair, and was suddenly annoyed with herself for not taking him up on it. 'Coward,' she thought despondently. 'You're a coward.'
        "Something wrong?" Joe asked as he started the car and pulled away from the house.
        She shook her head. "Nothing, just a little headache still."
        "Food'll help that. And water, lots of water. That's the best way to keep a hangover from happening is to drink a lot of water."
        "I'll have to remember that next time, though it seems to me that the best way to keep from having a hangover is not to overindulge in the first place."
        He chuckled as he turned from the residential street onto a busier thoroughfare. "You have a point. You know, I can't believe you've never been drunk before! I thought by your age you'd have pretty much done it all."
        She felt as if a wall of glass had suddenly come between them. No longer were they just man and woman, they were Mortal and Immortal, and the tenuous connection she'd thought was building between them was severed. She tried to think of a humorous answer, but before she did, he spoke again.
        "Me and my big mouth. Forget I said that. Forget I even thought it. I know better than that. Sorry."
        She looked at him, and found him staring at the road ahead, his mouth set in a thin, uncompromising line For the first time she saw the doubt in him, and it made her feel better. He wasn't infallible either. She reached out tentatively and touched his arm.
        "It's all right. I don' t mind."
        "Yes you do, and you should. It's none of my business."
        "Really, I don't mind." She was surprised to realize she meant it. "If you want to know, I will tell you. In my early days, it was a stoning offense for a priestess to be seen publicly in a state of intoxication. I learned that lesson well, so well that for a very long time I never even considered breaking it. Eventually it became a point of pride, and finally it simply seemed practical, after seeing what alcohol can do. Last night I didn't think at all about what I was doing, and it just took me by surprise."
        He grinned. "So I noticed. How's your head?"
        "Better now, thank you."
        He nodded. "Good. I thought you might need a little something for the morning after. Here we go." He steered the car into the small parking lot next to a Victorian house that was beautifully brilliant in "Painted Lady" yellows and oranges. A patio filled with umbrellaed tables occupied part of the front yard. All the tables were full. Nira saw a small sign out front which proclaimed the establishment to be "Tante Louise's." There were quite a few people either sitting on the benches that lined the porch, or gathered in small groups on the sidewalk, obviously waiting to be seated. Nira looked at the crowd dubiously.
        "Perhaps we should go somewhere else, it seems we'll have a long wait here."
        Joe just shook his head. "I don't think so."
        He got out of the car, and gestured for her to stay seated while came around to open her door. It seemed odd, it had been so long since anyone had done that for her. They walked over to the podium where a young woman in a gauzy dress was taking names in a reservation book. She looked up, saw Joe, and her face lit up.
        "Uncle Joe!" she exclaimed, brushing back a lock of thick, dark hair. Apparently Joe hadn't lied when he said his sister had hair much like Nira's. Her daughter had apparently inherited it.
        He grinned and shot Nira a look that told her this was his secret for getting seated more quickly. "Nira, this is my niece Bethany Horton. Beth, I'd like to introduce you to Nira Groves."
        Bethany held out her hand and took Nira's in a slightly awkward but enthusiastic grip, then her eyes widened. "Oh, wow! The Nira Groves, of Cornucopia Project?"
        Nira was taken aback by her recognition, but she nodded. "The same."
        Her hand was pumped even more ardently as the young woman gushed. "I am so stoked to meet you! This is too much! I've volunteered for the Project on campus for two years now! Uncle Joe never told me he knew you," she shot him a reproachful look before continuing. "But I guess I shouldn't be surprised. It seems like he knows just about everyone who's interesting."
        "Actually, we just met," Nira said tactfully, absolving Joe of having withheld important information from his niece without telling her any embarrassing details. "We had a mutual friend who passed away recently."
        Bethany sobered immediately. "Oh god, I'm sorry! You must think I'm just a total dink to go on and on like that!"
        Nira shook her head. "Not at all, and it's nice to meet someone who cares about the Project, especially someone so young."
        Bethany eyed her with a lifted eyebrow. "Yeah, like you're sooo old!" she teased, just like her uncle was wont to do, before turning to him. "You guys here for breakfast?"
        "We surely are," he assented.
        Bethany waved over one of the waiters, and handed him two menus. "David, you take special care of my Uncle Joe and Ms. Groves. Put them at table sixteen, okay?"
        David, who seemed to be gazing at Beth with more than co-workerly fondness, nodded and opened the gate to the patio, holding it for them. "Right this way."
        Nira followed Joe, feeling guilty as she sensed the narrowed eyes of jealous would-be diners on her back. "Joe, this isn't fair. . ." she began.
        He turned and winked. "Nope, it sure ain't. But if I can't pull strings now and then what good am I?"

* * *

        Breakfast was as good as promised. Surprisingly hungry after the way she'd felt when she'd woken up that morning, Nira had eaten two of the sugary beignets, and an order of eggs florentine, accompanied by a sinfully wonderful mocha latté. She and Joe had argued briefly over the check before Nira had snuck it off the table when Beth had come back on her break to say hello again and fill in her uncle on her current college schedule. Feigning a need to use the ladies' room, Nira had handed the fee and generous tip to David-the-waiter, and by the time Joe remembered he hadn't paid the bill they had been halfway through the scenic tour that he had insisted on conducting after learning that Nira had never been to Seacouver before. The ensuing altercation had led to a leisurely and delicious lunch at a seafood restaurant on the shore of a quiet bay, this time paid for by Joe. After that, he'd reluctantly told her he had to be back at the bar by four, and the ride back into the city proper had been quiet and a little strained, for the first time all day. They arrived back at the bar, and Nira had thanked him, and walked toward her rental car, still parked where she'd left it the night before.
        "Nira?" Joe called.
        She turned quickly. "Yes?"
        He tilted his head a little, and she saw him chew the inside of his lower lip, then finally he spoke. "Where are you staying?"
        Flustered, she told him the truth. "I don't know, I hadn't thought about it yet."
        He seemed relieved, and a slow smile curved his mouth. "Well, you could stay at Chez Dawson and save the money you would have spent on a hotel to donate to your favorite charity."
        It took her just a moment to realize what he was asking, but when it sank in she felt a blush paint her face, and her stomach knotted uncomfortably. She opened her mouth to refuse, politely, and heard something entirely different come out of her mouth.
        "Thank you, I'd like that."
        Aghast, she started to correct herself when the look on his face stopped her. Open, honest, and frankly hopeful. No one had ever looked at her like that before. No one she trusted, anyway. But this man, she trusted. Perhaps that was foolish, and she might very well regret making this decision, but she finally had one foot on the rope bridge over the chasm she'd avoided crossing for two millennia, and she wasn't about to step back now. She wanted desperately to see what was on the other side. He held out his hand, as if assisting her in her quest, though his words were prosaic.
        "Come on in, you can help out until it's time to go home."
        She took his hand, and let him draw her into the bar's dark, industrial interior.

* * *

        Somehow he sensed she wasn't ready. Nira followed Joe home in her rented red Taurus, but when they entered the house he kissed her lightly on the forehead and told her to get some rest. Disappointed and yet relieved, she had taken her bag into the spare bedroom and hidden there until she heard his door close. She made a quick trip to the bathroom to wash up and attend to her other needs, then slipped quickly back into "her" room to lie tense and far from sleep long into the night. Finally, close to dawn, she made up her mind, and took the next step onto the bridge.
        She searched through her clothing to find the sexiest thing she had with her, which was really just a plain ivory silk slip with a touch of hand-tatted lace adorning the rather demure neckline. None of her clothes had been chosen with an eye toward attracting a man. She had bought it because it felt nice against her skin, and because the lace was pretty. She put it on, and stood for a moment trying to see herself in the small mirror over the desk. Her hair was bound in a thick braid that lay against her back like a club. Hesitantly she pulled off the elastic that held it and raked her fingers through the mass, freeing it to coil around her face and over her shoulders. Better, though she made a face at the way her rather wide hips made the slip wrinkle a little at her waist. Perhaps the matching fullness of her breasts might distract the eye. . . his eye. . . from that.
        She wore no makeup, indeed she didn't own any, but at that moment she wished she had the services of a cosmetician to give her face a touch of seductiveness. She stared into the mirror and saw only her paleness, and the almost tangible apprehension in her face. She pinched her cheeks and bit her lips -- tactics as old as woman-- to give herself a little color, and set her hand on the doorknob. It rattled as her hand shook, and she grasped it more firmly and opened the door. The house was dark and quiet. Somehow that made it easier to walk to his door and listen. She heard nothing but the slight, regular sigh of his breathing. Asleep. She smiled ruefully, so much for her imaginings that he too lay awake and tense. Well, last night she'd ended up in his bed by accident. Tonight would be intentional.
        With a spill of moonlight through the window to help her see, Nira walked across the room, carefully lifted the covers, and gently eased down into bed beside him. He stirred a little, and she tensed, but he settled again quickly. She let out her held breath, and relaxed a little. After awhile, her nervousness surrendered to her lack of sleep, and her eyes drifted closed.
* * *

        For the second morning in a row, Joe Dawson woke with a warm, soft form pressed against his own. This time he smiled, knowing exactly who it was. Nira had come to him in the night again, this time without the excuse of being too drunk to know what she was doing. Still, remembering her hesitancy from the night before, he knew better than to make any assumptions. Carefully he eased away from her, so she wouldn't wake up and be disconcerted by the unmistakable signs of his interest. As soon as he did, she stiffened. At that moment he realized that she'd been awake, and nearly groaned. Hell. He'd messed up again. It had been deliberate, and he knew as well as he knew his name that she thought he'd just turned her down. While he tried to think of some romantic way to disabuse her of that idea, she lifted her head and studied him for a long moment, then looked away, her lower lip caught between her teeth as a blush stained her cheeks deep rose.
        "I'm sorry," she whispered, and started to slide out of bed.
        Cursing under his breath he reached out and caught her by the edge of the little slip-like thing she wore before she could get all the way out. "Hold it!"
        She stopped, probably mostly because further movement might tear the delicate silk in his hand, and she looked back at him, her expression that of a kid with her hand in the cookie jar.
        "I'm the one who should be sorry. I'm not usually dense." he offered with a self-deprecating smile. "It's just that I wanted to let you sleep until you were ready to wake up on your own. I didn't realize you were already awake."
        She absorbed that, and a tentative smile hovered on her lips. "You don't mind?"
        He laughed. "Mind?" his tone told her how ludicrous that was. Then he sobered. "But do you mind if I ask you a question?"
        Her lip went back between her teeth for a moment, then finally she shook her head, though she didn't say a word.
        "Why?" he asked. There were two questions in that one, why me, and why now? He wasn't sure which she would answer, if either.
        She drew her feet back up onto the bed and wrapped her arms around her knees, staring off into the distance. When she finally spoke, her words were low, almost whispered.
        "Many reasons. Because you touch me. Yesterday. . . no one has ever accepted me like that before. No one ever wanted me despite what I am instead of because of it. I listened to you sing, and your songs speak to a part of me that I've always been careful to pretend didn't exist. Death has become too close a companion to me, and I need something to help me remember life. And lastly, because you're a good and gentle man, and will be patient with me."
        Whatever he'd expected her to say, that hadn't been it. He was touched, and saddened, and oddly aroused. Still, some flicker of insecurity made him push it.
        "You could do better than me, I'm pretty beat up."
        She looked at him then, her gray gaze steady, and slowly shook her head. "No, Joseph, I don't believe I could."
        That hit him like a punch in the stomach, and he let his breath out in a slow hiss. "You give a mean compliment, lady."
        Her face fell. "No, I did not intend to be mean!"
        Realizing she'd misunderstood he hurriedly corrected her. "That's a colloquialism, it means you give good compliments."
        She smiled suddenly, and looked pleased. "Oh! Do you think so?"
        He nodded and caught her hand, tugging her toward him. "Come back here and let's see if we can start this over again."
        She did the lip-biting thing again then, but slowly eased down onto the bed beside him. He reached out and slid his hand beneath the heavy fall of her hair, cupping the back of her head, tilting her face so his lips could meet hers comfortably. She was quiet beneath his kiss, her lips warm, soft, and unresponsive. Puzzled, he lifted his head.
        "Am I going too fast?"
        She shook her head, and refused to meet his eyes. That puzzled him even more. He put a finger under her chin and tipped her head back until she was forced to either look at him or close her eyes completely. She looked nervous, and worried. Not emotions he commonly associated with making love.
        "Hey, sweetheart, what's the matter?" he asked gently. "Something wrong?"
        She looked away, her eyes flickering right, then left in an attempt to look at anything but him. He was starting to get a little nervous. What was the problem? Suddenly paranoid, he wondered if she was waiting for someone else to show up. Had this been a setup of some kind? He started to sit up, only to have her grab for him.
        "No, please, don't go! I want this, but I'm just not sure what to do!"
        He lay back against the pillows, regarding her with a mixture of confusion and suspicion.
        "You mind telling me just what's going on here? You say you want to, but you sure don't act like it."
        Dark color burned across her cheeks again, and she looked utterly miserable. "I'm sorry, I'm not very good at this. What should I do? What would please you?"
        While he found it a little hard to accept that fact that a woman her age could really be a lousy lover, he guessed it was actually possible. So much depended on what sort of partners she'd had before. Just because one was an Immortal didn't guarantee good relationships. In fact, more than likely, it precluded them. He hadn't read her chronicles, maybe that would be enlightening. Maybe she'd ended up with a succession of rotten lovers that had never bothered with foreplay, or the kind of slow, easy loving he preferred. She was still waiting for an answer to her question, her expression endearingly earnest.
        "What would please me?" Joe echoed. "Pleasing you would please me, but let's have you try kissing me back, for starters."
        Nira's gaze went to his mouth, and she moistened her lips with her tongue. Good start. She drew breath to say something, and before she could speak, he pulled her to him and covered her mouth with his, laughing as he tasted her for the first time. She pulled back in obvious surprise for a moment, then her eyelids lowered and her mouth found his again, tentatively. This time her lips softened beneath his, and when he began to make the kiss more intimate, her tongue stole cautiously out to meet his. She gave delicate little licks, like a cat but not so rough.
        Joe settled her more comfortably against him, feeling the soft give of her breasts against him, but as he stroked his hands down her back, he could also feel the tension that still held her. He'd have to work harder to get her past that. Sometimes it was like that for women, their first time with him. They worried about a lot of stuff they didn't need to worry about. After the first time, they knew better.
        He began to stroke her back, his fingers massaging her lightly through the soft fabric, moving ever lower until they found the flare of her hips, then he worked his way back up again. Once at her shoulders, he let them journey downward again, this time stealing an inch lower before he reversed direction. He lifted his mouth from hers finally, and began to kiss other spots. Her eyelids, the curve of a cheek, her ear. Nira shivered when his mouth found the juncture of shoulder and neck, and he paused there, nibbling, until she lifted her hands from the bed to thread her fingers through his hair and hold him there, a soft breath of pleasure escaping her.
        Smiling, Joe let his hands soothe down her back again, this time finding the soft rise of her buttocks. She tensed a little more as he curved his hands over the full mounds, but relaxed quickly as he moved them back upward. He would definitely have to read her chronicles. It wasn't right that she should be so skittish about loving. Someone hadn't treated her the way she deserved to be treated. He was determined to rectify that. If he hadn't known better he'd have guessed she'd never made love before, but at her age she could hardly be a virgin. As soon as he thought it, the realization hit him like the proverbial bolt from the blue. The idea startled him so much that he actually jerked in response to it, and lifted his head to stare at her with growing incredulity. Her eyes widened and got that worried look, so he figured he'd better say something.
        "Nira, have you ever made love before?"
        Her already flushed face grew even pinker and her gaze fell. She bit her lip, which he'd come to realize was a sure sign that she was nervous and embarrassed. For a long, awkward moment she didn't answer, then, finally, she shook her head.
        The motion confirmed his incredulous suspicion. No. She hadn't. The very idea that she could possibly be a virgin stunned him silent. From what he knew of Immortals, it seemed that usually, once they figured out they were safe from the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, they embraced their sexuality with open arms. He ran a hand through his hair and took a long, deep breath.
        "Well, now, talk about your performance anxiety!" he joked, hoping to put her more at ease.
        Nira paled. "I-- I'm sorry, I didn't realize. . . I should not have told you!"
        Realizing she'd misunderstood, he quickly corrected her. "No, I meant for you, not me. It's got to be a little tough for you. But now that I know, it'll be easier, because there won't be any more misunderstandings, right?" Joe waited, got no answer, and prompted her again.. "Right?"
        Her eyes searched his, and whatever she found there seemed to calm her. She nodded, a tentative smile curving her mouth. "Right. No more misunderstandings. I was right about you, Joseph Dawson. You're a very special man. I-- was afraid."
        "Of me?" Joe asked, stunned.
        "No! Not of you, but that you would think me strange. . .or odd."
        Joe shook his head. "Not strange, or odd. Unique, and special, perhaps. Tell me something, though. I don't understand how you could possibly still be. . . " he hesitated, not wanting to sound crass.
        She finished his sentence for him. "A virgin?" At his nod, she sighed and smiled wryly. "Somehow I knew you would ask that."
        "Nothing says you have to answer."
        "Yes, something does. Trust, and respect demand it of me, and I willingly give those to you." She lay back down, resting her head against his shoulder. "I was a mortal child when I was given to be a priestess. As I matured, my position demanded chastity, as I was dedicated to the Kore."
        "The corey?" Joe asked, unfamiliar with the term.
        "The Maiden aspect of the Goddess. Mythologically you might know her as Artemis, or Athena. Priestesses who were dedicated to the Mother or Crone aspects were not expected to be chaste, but I was. After my first death and recovery I thought I must have been chosen by the Lady for some special purpose, and so I held myself apart and aloof. Gradually, those of my own kind sought me out, and I learned what I was, and the rules by which we live. That was when I realized that my vocation was also my salvation. No Immortal would dare take my head so long as I remained a priestess." Nira took a breath and let it sigh out, looking around.
        Guessing her need, Joe reached over and got the glass of water from his nightstand. She accepted it gratefully and drank several swallows, managing to spill a little because of the awkward angle at which she was drinking. The spilled droplets gleamed like diamonds on her throat, and he had to resist the urge to lick them off her, wanting to hear the rest of her story before they proceeded. She handed him the glass and he put it down as she took a deep breath and resumed her story.
        "Times changes, morals changed-- yet remained oddly the same. There's an old saying I have heard-- 'the more things change, the more they stay the same,' you've no idea how true that is. The times were such that being chaste was the only way to have the respect of others, and to be frank, I had met no one who tempted me to be otherwise. Finally, though, I met Sylvanus. He was an Immortal, like me, he understood me, and he was so, so beautiful. I loved him, or thought I did, and he courted me gently at first, pushing only a little for me to abandon my chastity and embrace him.
        She sighed, shaking her head as if at her own naivete, then went on. "The longer we were together, though, the more he pushed, and the shorter his temper became. What I didn't realize was that Sylvanus wanted my Quickening more than my love. He thought that by taking my body, he would take my vocation as well, and that would make me vulnerable to his blade. It wasn't until the night he tried to rape me that I realized just how well he had deceived me. Fortunately a friend who lived nearby heard my cries for help and he came to my defense."
        Joe tightened his arm around her, hoping to communicate his sympathy through that touch. "I'm sorry, Nira. What a bastard! I'm glad your friend was there to help."
        She nodded. "As was I. The Lady sent him to me that night, I'm sure it was Her doing that placed him near enough to hear my cries and come to help."
        "I hope Sylvanus didn't hurt him for defending you."
        Nira laughed. "Quite the opposite. Sylvanus sought my head, but lost his own instead."
        "This friend was an Immortal as well?" Joe asked, wondering if this story were in her Chronicle. He wanted to find out who it had been, and write him a thank-you note.
        She nodded. "He was. In fact, it was he who first told me of the Watchers. He'd tried for years to convince me that I needed to learn to defend myself. After Sylvanus, I knew he was right. Petros taught me the fighting skills I needed, and I've been grateful for them."
        "Have you had to use them a lot?"
        She shook her head. "Never against another Immortal, though they have occasionally been beneficial against mortals. I don't quite understand how my reputation came to be so well known among my own kind, but it seems all I have to do is mention my name and any Immortal who has found me has left me alone."
        "You are pretty unique that way." Joe was quiet for a moment, before he finally asked the question foremost in his mind. "Was he right?"
        "Was who right?"
        "Sylvanus. Would taking you have given him your head?"
        She smiled suddenly, and turned to lie more fully against him, her breasts warm and soft against his chest. "You are concerned that if we make love, I will lose my protection, aren't you?"
        He nodded, his gaze serious. "I won't do that to you, there are ways to make love that don't involve penetration. We can share each other without risking you in any way."
        She leaned over and kissed him softly, and when she drew back, her eyes were suspiciously bright. "Joseph, you don't disappoint me. But, the answer is no. What Sylvanus didn't understand is that I will always serve my Lady, and She doesn't care what aspect I wear."
        Joe let out a sigh of relief, and slowly began to stroke a hand across Nira's back, skimming lightly with just the tips of his fingers until she shivered a little under his touch and hunched her shoulders.
        "That tickle?" he asked blandly.
        "A little," she admitted. "But it's also... something else."
        "A good something or a bad something?"
        She glanced up at him from beneath her lush eyelashes in a way that he would have read as coy or flirtatious in anyone else-- and maybe even in her. She hadn't lived as long as she had without picking up a few things. But when she finally she replied, she was straightforward and honest, as he had come to expect from her.
        He chuckled. "That's good, 'cause I plan to do it some more."
        "I would like that, I think," Nira admitted. "I feel like your guitar must feel when you play-- every string vibrating."
        He smiled at her metaphor and let his fingers trace guitar chords on her skin, fingers playing idly, using patterns learned for a very different purpose. She made a little purring sound and then looked at him again, her eyes gleaming with amusement and desire.
        "Am I a major or a minor chord?" she queried, turning her head so his fingers could find the sensitive hollow of her throat.
        Joe deliberated for a moment before speaking, amused and intrigued by the question. "Minor. Full of complexity, and a little sad, but beautiful and expressive and touching."
        Nira sighed and lifted her mouth to his. This time when their lips met, hers were soft, moist, and responsive. He cradled her head in his hands and used his thumbs to stroke lightly along her jaw until her lips parted, then he played his tongue over the silky inner surfaces of her mouth. He felt her tense for a startled moment, then she relaxed and she met him with artless sensuality. Oh yes, things were working this time.
        He eased a hand down her back , over her thigh, until he found the edge of the chemise she wore. His fingers stole beneath it, and moved upward until his hand rested on the bare curve of her hip. Her skin was as creamy-textured as the silk, but far warmer and more resilient. She shifted under his touch, and her hand moved to cover his, the fabric a fragile barrier between her hand and his, then her hand urged his upward. Joe grinned, and let his fingers smooth over the womanly curve of her belly, over the tense muscles in her midriff, then finally his fingers cupped the soft roundness of her breast, feeling the nipple furl against his palm. He moved his hand slightly and took that taut bud in his callused fingers, teasing it lightly.
        Nira gasped, her fingers moving to splay over his, her chemise still a tantalizing veil between their skin. Gradually she eased the pressure a little and he shifted his fingers again, stroking them across the sensitive peak of her nipple. She made a little sound in her throat and arched her back, lifting her breasts higher. He could see the hard crest of her other nipple tenting the camisole, and he leaned over to kiss it, wetting the silk so it became translucent to the dark aureole beneath it, the fabric so thin and fine that he could feel each tiny ridge of the pebbled flesh beneath it with his tongue. Her hand cupped his head, fingers sliding through his tarnished-silver hair, holding his mouth against her.
        "That's lovely," she sighed, stroking his hair.
        Joe lifted his head. "That's just the beginning sweetheart. Now, let's get this off you. . ." he took the hem of her chemise in his hands and began to raise it. Nira grabbed it and held it down.
        "No, I--" she began, biting her lip. "I am not so pretty."
        Joe shook his head, chuckling. "Darlin' you ain't seen not pretty until you get a good look at yours truly. If I'm not embarrassed to be naked with you, you shouldn't be embarrassed to be naked with me. I don't know what moron told you that you aren't pretty, but they weren't playing with a full deck. You're lovely and warm, round and soft, everything a woman should be. Relax, and let go now. I want to touch you all over, and I can't unless you let go."
        Slowly Nira released the fabric, sharply creased where she'd clutched it. He eased it up, and finally off over her head. As she lowered her arms, her hair cascaded down around her breasts, hiding them. Dropping her slip beside the bed, he gently brushed her hair out of the way, baring her completely. She put one hand and arm across her breasts, the other shielded the dark curls of her mons, for all the world like a Botticelli Venus. Joe smiled and gently tugged her arm away from her breasts, leaving the other where it was, for now. He lowered his head to the soft cleft between her breasts and drank in the rich, warm, scent of her, like amber and vanilla. It made him hungry. He began to kiss a path down the center of her body, easing lower and lower until his lips grazed the little bare spot just above her mons, where he felt her tense as she realized where he was going.
        "Don't say it," he whispered, lifting his head to gaze up at her, seeing the mixture of desire and nervousness on her face.
        Her expression grew puzzled. "Don't say what?"
        "Don't say no, sweetheart. Don't stop me. Let me love you like you deserve to be loved."
        Color flooded her face, but her gaze softened. He waited, his breath held, and finally she replied.
        "I won't. I'm just--"
        "I know. And it's okay. There's a first time for everything."
        She actually laughed at that. Realizing he was going a little fast for her, he slowed down and stroked a hand down her thigh, over her calf, then found her foot and lifted it, massaging it. She moaned in pleasure, her head falling back against the pillows. He chuckled. He hadn't met a woman yet who didn't react like that to a foot-massage. Switching his attentions to her other foot, he worked until he could feel the tension flowing out of her. He leaned forward and nibbled on her hip just as a brilliant flash of light lit the room, accompanied by a crack of thunder. Nira jumped about a foot, gasping, and Joe's heart was racing as fast as he could feel hers, where her pulse beat under his thumbs. She lay back slowly, a hand on her chest as she laughed breathlessly.
        "I have heard lovemaking compared to lightning, but didn't think it would be quite so literal."
        A joke! She was actually comfortable enough to make a joke! Progress, definite progress. He grinned, and laughed. "That's a new one on me, too. I guess it's like I said, there's a first time for everything! He glanced at the alarm clock on the nightstand and noticed that its face was dark. "Power's out."
        Nira nodded. "It must have been very close. . . the flash and the sound were at the same time."
        He grinned. "I guess that means we've got a pretty powerful spark between us."
        She smiled back. "I think we do."
        Outside it began to rain, not gently, but in a pounding deluge. The sound washed over them, cooling just by its sound. Joe sighed. "I'm glad it's finally raining, we've needed it. Now maybe the fire danger will come down."
        Nira reached out to touch his shoulder, and his eyes went to hers as she smiled. "Perhaps outside, it will."
His eyes widened in surprise as she leaned toward him, her hand slipping from his shoulder to his chest. He had expected it to take a bit longer before she worked up the courage to reciprocate his caresses. She slid a fingertip across one of his nipples, watched intently as it hardened, then smiled and repeated the caress on the other side. Joe sucked in a breath, his body flooding with desire at her inexperienced touch. There was something incredibly erotic about her curiosity. He held still as her hand moved lower, then hesitated at the edge of the sheet just below his waist.
        She traced a finger back and forth across his abdomen just above the cloth, and Joe closed his eyes, mentally encouraging her to resume her explorations. Finally she did, her fingers cool against his rapidly overheating skin. The side of her hand just brushed his cock, and she froze, her gaze fixed on the sheet where it hid him from her. He waited again, trying very hard to keep from telling her what to do. She needed to be the one to decide how much, how soon.
        She bit her lip. Joe bit his to keep from smiling. It was getting to where every time she did that, he wanted to do it for her, gently, and then soothe it with his tongue. As he watched, her expression became very determined, and she moved her hand the inch or so needed, settling her palm directly over the length of his penis. He took a deep breath through clenched teeth, and she lifted her hand, looking at him with her dark eyes full of concern.
        "Did I hurt you?"
        He shook his head. "Not a bit, love, just the opposite. Go on, if you want to."
        Her hand descended again, her fingers closing around him, cool and firm, but rapidly warming as his head pervaded her. Her eyes closed as she adjusted her grip, her thumb grazing the silky tip. Involuntarily he arched a little, and she smiled slightly.
        "It feels good?" she asked.
        "Very good," he confirmed.
        "Show me more?" she asked in a voice he might have called demanding under other circumstances.
        Joe wasn't sure if she meant for him to show her how to touch him, or for him to touch her more. He opted for the latter, and his hand smoothed up her thigh to the soft curls between her thighs. He edged a finger into the cleft at the top of her mons, and she shuddered, clenching her thighs around his hand. Fortunately, the motion only trapped his finger directly against her most sensitive spot, and he grinned as she moved against his hand with an instinctive undulation. He felt moisture under his hand, slick, thick, silky. He imagined what that wetness would feel like on him, what her lush body would feel like around him, and pushed himself into her hand again.
        She got the hint, and slowly stroked her hand up his shaft, then back down. He put his hand over hers, showing her the rhythm he needed. She followed it, and laughed in delight as she felt his immediate response. It also distracted her into relaxing her thighs, which he took advantage of, putting a hand against her knee and pushing gently outward. She let him, giving no resistance this time, not even when his fingers moved to open her more intimately. There was tension in her body, but not like before, not the tension of fear, but a very different and welcome tautness. He teased a finger around her warm, soft folds, accustoming her to his touch, and felt her response in the way her hand quickened and tightened on his rigid flesh. He covered her hand to slow her down again with a rueful grin.
        "Sorry, sweetheart, but keep that up and you'll have to wait awhile longer to find out what making love is really like."
        "Why?" she pouted, and he almost laughed.
        "Because, I'm not as young as I once was, and my recovery rate's a little slower than it used to be. Joe admitted frankly, wondering if she could ever understand the realities of aging.
        Nira stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment, then realization came. "Oh! You like it too well?"
        He grinned. "Exactly. Let's just concentrate on you for now."
        She nodded so enthusiastically that he had to hide a smile as he returned his attention to her body. He let his head rest on her thigh as his fingers took up their task again. The vanilla-amber musk of her was even stronger here. Was it natural, or had she touched a drop of scent to the well of her body? It was hard to believe a virgin would dare that much, but then again, Nira was the first two-thousand year old virgin he'd ever met. Undoubtedly she knew far more on an intellectual level than she had actually experienced. He continued to arouse her, working methodically until she was literally squirming under his hands. Finally she tugged on his hair with what sounded like an oath, though he couldn't understand it.
        "Joseph! Stop teasing me!" she demanded imperiously. "I need. . . I need. . . something more!"
        He grinned. "Your word is my command." He rolled over her thigh, pinning her in place as he lowered his mouth to the moist, fragrant depths of her. She let out a sound that an ungenerous soul might have likened to a squeal, and grabbed his ears as if she could drag him away using them, then seemed to change her mind, her hands fluttering for a moment before she threaded her fingers into his hair and held him to her, gasping each time his tongue found a sensitive spot. Her gasp turned to a startled cry when he eased a finger into her depths for the first time, and her hips tilted upward. He eased another finger into her, carefully stretching and easing her narrow passage until she was able to accept his fingers easily within her, all the time using his lips and tongue to drive her higher. She began to rock, a rhythmic, searching movement, and he obliged her, letting her set the pace. Within moments her tight sheath fluttered around his fingers, her whole body shaking as she found release, a long, low moan escaping her.
        "That's it, sweetheart. Perfect. Just like that," he encouraged her, letting his fingers still so she could experience her climax completely.

* * *

        It was like music, Nira thought, as he taught her. His lips, his deep, rough-edged voice persuading her to relax, to open to his touch, to his wonderful, remarkable hands, and his mouth. The combination of sensations, his fingers sliding inside her, caressing a place she'd never let anyone touch, and his lips against almost painfully sensitive skin, made her gasp with startled wonder. He played her, he made her body sing with aching need, and for the first time embrace the full spectrum of sensation of which she was capable. It was magic, as much magic as any Quickening. She'd only experienced only once, and that indirectly, her body struck by a backlash of the energy Petros had absorbed into himself as he had beheaded Sylvanus.
        As the sensations gradually subsided, fading with each pulse of blood through her body, she wondered why she had waited so long. Even as she wondered it, she knew the answer. She had waited because she needed to wait, for this man. Not that no other man could have brought her this feeling, but that until now she had never been ready, and until now no man had been quite what she needed. Everything happened in its season, and this was her time to leave the Maiden behind. It made a strange kind of sense for her first lover to be a mortal, in an odd way reversing the myth of Hades and Persephone.
        Nira opened her eyes and looked down at him, smiling at the self-satisfied grin on his face. She reached down and touched his lips with her fingers, shivering as she remembered what they had done to her.
        "I suppose you have the right to look like that," she said wryly. "After what you've done to me. I think I understand a great deal more about the world than I did an hour ago."
        Joe chuckled. "I don't think it was that mystical, darlin'. No revelation, just your garden variety orgasm."\
        "Garden variety?"
        She shook her head. "I don't think there's anything ordinary about something that feels that good. I have spent a very long time being a fool, haven't I?"
        He shook his head. "Not a fool, just a human being. We all have our fears and foibles."
        A human being. How long had she wanted someone, anyone, who would think of her that way? Someone who knew who and what she was, yet accepted her no matter. Her eyes filled with tears and she put her hands over her face to hide them. He moved up next to her, taking her hands in his.
        "Stop that now," he ordered firmly. "No crying in this bed. If you want to cry we'll go in the living room and I'll play you some sad songs. That'll give you something to cry about."
        Nira lifted her mouth to his and kissed him fiercely, then drew back. "Thank you, Joseph, for being such a wise man, but I don't want to hear any sad songs. I want you." She reached for him, then hesitated a moment, blushing, as she realized she didn't really know what to do next. Joe studied her face, guessed her trouble, and winked.
        "Just climb on, sweetheart, and take ol' Joe for a ride."
        She stared at him, not quite believing he'd said that, then realizing she could indeed believe it. He was a very earthy man. Climb on? Very well. She could manage that. A slow smile curved her mouth as she pushed him onto his back and drew her fingers through the thicket of soft, wiry hair that furred his chest. She studied him openly, taking in all the old scars, and the raw places and calluses left by his prosthetics. Her jaw tightened in anger against the madness that had done this to him. On their drive, earlier that day, he had told her that he had lost his legs in war. It angered her that mankind still fought and killed over land, and petty differences. It seemed they should have learned better by now. She leaned down to kiss each scar she could find, each callus. Before she had placed more than three kisses, he urged her firmly away.
        "Don't," he said evenly. It was clear that his arousal had fled, and in his eyes she read an odd distance. With a rush of dismay she realized he thought she pitied him. She shook her head, and brought her mouth to his, kissing him deeply before she drew back to explain.
        "It makes me angry that men still do this to each other. Death I understand, accidents, whether of birth or nature, I can understand, but to deliberately cause this kind of harm to another is inhuman. Even I know that. That's all I was feeling a moment ago. Anger, and a wish that I could have helped to ease your pain."
        The relief in his eyes almost hurt. Nira wondered if there had been others who had pitied him, and then realized it was a stupid thing to wonder. Of course there had been, but she wasn't one of them. She stroked his chest, teasing a little as her fingers strayed lower and lower. Joe's body responded, hardening, as it had before. She smiled, and let her hand move down to cover him, feeling the silky warmth expand beneath her touch. It amazed her that something so hard could also be so soft.
        She stroked him, watching the transformation with fascination. Bodies were such amazing things. Feeling astonishingly bold, she leaned closer, wondering if her mouth on him would feel as good as his had to her. She touched the satin-fleshed surface with her lips and felt him jerk under her touch, heard his gasp. This time she didn't mistake his reaction for pain. Her lips curved in a smile against his hot skin, and she tried to remember what he'd done next. Oh yes. Tongue. Delicately she flicked her tongue out. Salt, and something else, something distinct and unique that somehow reminded her of mangoes. Strange, but not unpleasant.
        Her hand tightened around the base of him as he'd shown her before, but this time she let her mouth engulf the broad, blunt tip. Joe's response was an explosive moan that sent shivers through her. It felt very powerful, to be able to provoke this kind of a response in someone else. Very powerful, and very erotic. She recognized the ache between her thighs this time, knew it for what it was. She remembered his fingers inside her, and felt empty. His invitation echoed in her mind, and she lifted her head, letting him go with some reluctance, then moved to straddle him. His hands cupped her hips and guided her over him, stroking her over him, moistening himself in her wetness, and at the same time increasing her arousal. She finally stopped him, reaching down to hold him still, and took a moment to get him in the right spot. Finally, he was there.
        Nira closed her eyes, wanting just to feel for the moment. She could feel his pulsebeat where he rested just barely within her. Slowly she eased down, feeling him forge inward. She pressed down more firmly, feeling herself stretch. The deeper she took him, the less comfortable the stretch became. He was broader than his fingers had been, and she had too-quickly reached the limits of his preparation. She reached between them and realized with a shock that he was only a little way in. Well, if there was one advantage to being an Immortal, it was the knowledge that no pain would last more than a few moments. Setting her jaw, she braced her hands against his shoulders, and pushed herself down firmly.
        Pain bloomed between her thighs, and she gasped in surprise. She hadn't quite expected it to hurt that much. Joe reached up to brush her hair out of her face and shook his head.
        "Slowly, sweetheart! We're not running a race here, we're making love. You're supposed to do it slowly, gradually so it doesn't hurt. Now, how bad is it?"
        "Not so bad," she lied, for the moment wanting nothing so much as to climb off and relieve the burning ache his presence inside her caused. Then, as suddenly as it had come, the pain eased dramatically. Just as it did, Joe went stiff, his eyes widening in shock.
        "What the hell is that?"
        "What is what?" she asked, blankly.
        He shivered again, clutching at her hips, his body arching involuntarily under hers. "That!"
        "I don't understand, is something wrong?"
        He looked puzzled. "No, not wrong, not really, but I've never felt anything like it and I'm sure as hell no virgin. Wait, it's stopped now." His expression was disappointed and relieved at the same time.
        That gave her the clue she'd needed. Whatever he had felt had started when the pain had eased, and stopped when the pain had gone. Realizing what must have happened, she giggled, and he arched an eyebrow at her.
        "Well? Are you going to let me in on the joke?"
        "I healed."
        "You what?"
        "I healed. You know how quickly we heal. That's what you felt. You've seen us heal, haven't you? The little sparks?"
        Understanding lit his face and he shook his head, grinning. "Well I'll be damned! That's what it was?"
        "It didn't hurt, did it?" she asked anxiously.
        "No, in fact it felt pretty good, but it did kinda freak me out for a minute there. You know us guys, we tend to worry about our. . . equipment."
        Nira laughed, understanding, well aware of that particular male obsession. Experimentally, she moved on him. There was no pain, just a lovely, filled feeling, even better than fingers. She tried circling her hips, and liked that even more, the way it brought him against the sensitive bud at the top of her cleft. Joe closed his eyes and caught his lower lip between his teeth, pleasure written clearly on his expressive face. She felt a surge of excitement at the realization that she had caused that pleasure, and she reached down to touch him where they joined. He shuddered and moaned, his hips moving under hers. She leaned forward and found it gave her more control. The tight ache inside her was intensifying, a tight-wound spiral of pleasure. Joe reached up to caress her breasts, cupping their fullness, stroking his thumbs over her nipples.
        That was enough to free the pleasure, and it uncoiled inside her like a spring of tension-steel, sending pleasure lashing through her in waves. Somewhere in the midst of it she heard Joe moan, and felt his body shudder beneath hers. The knowledge that she'd given him as much pleasure as he had given her loosed another swell of pulsing delight to sparkle through her. Finally she had no strength left, and she collapsed onto her partner, panting as she calmed, hearing his heartbeat slowing as well, where her ear was pressed against his chest. They lay in each others arms for a long time. After awhile, Joe shifted their position to a more comfortable one and drew the blankets up over them, and the rain lulled them to sleep.

* * *

        Joe woke up fast, adrenalin pumping, and it took him a moment to sort out why. Finally the loud pounding and the insistent doorbell made it through the haze of sleep to identify the cause of his sudden awakening. Nira, too, was awake, sitting bolt upright and looking disoriented and afraid. He waved a hand at her and rolled his eyes as he reached for the robe that lay on the seat of his chair. Pulling it on, he grabbed the rings over the bed and swung himself into the chair, then tugged the robe closed and belted it..
        "It's probably some damned salesman," he said disgustedly. "I'll get rid of them."
        Nira shook her head violently. "Joe, no! Wait for me! It's one of us, I can feel them!"
        "One of who? You mean an Immortal?
        She nodded, her eyes wide with fear. He frowned. "Great, that means it's probably MacLeod wanting me to break some more Watcher rules. Or Ryan, wanting me to rescue Mac from some demented scrape or other."
        "MacLeod? Ryan?" she queried blankly.
        "A couple of my friends. Look, don't worry, I'll be fine." He swung the chair around to head for the front door, but she stopped it and came around to kneel by the chair, her expression worried. "Joe, what if they want me? They might harm you to get to me."
        Joe studied her, his eyes narrowed. "You told me that it didn't matter whether or not you were a virgin. Did you lie to me?"
        "No! I wouldn't lie to you! It doesn't matter!"
        "Then no one would be trying to get to you, right?"
        She hesitated, biting her lip. He reached over to press his thumb against the spot she'd bitten and shook his head, grinning. "Relax. It'll be all right."
        She stared at him soberly. "What if it's not your friend?"
        "Well then, I guess I'll deal with that too," he wheeled over to the nightstand and opened the drawer, taking out the small handgun he'd kept there since Lauren had been killed. "There. Does this make you happy?"
        She stared at the gleaming metal and shivered. "I. . . yes. If that's what it takes for you to be safe, it makes me happy."
        Joe tucked the weapon into the pocket of his robe and headed for the door again. Whoever it was had continued to alternately ring the bell and pound on the door. As he unlocked the door, he grumbled loudly.
        "All right! All right already! I'm coming!" He opened the door as far as the safety chain would allow and peered out, one hand on the weapon in his pocket. As he saw who stood on his porch, he sighed, took his hand out of his pocket, and reached up to release the safety chain. He backed up the chair so his visitor could enter the house, and watched with raised eyebrows as he stepped inside, dripping water everywhere. He was soaking wet.
        "Okay Pierson, what's so all-fired important that you had to drag my ass out of bed?"
        The deceptively youthful-looking Immortal wiped his face ineffectually with his hands, and looked around. "Is Mac here?"
        "No, what makes you think he is?"
        "Someone's here, I can feel them. Is it Ryan?"
        "No," Joe said, beginning to enjoy himself.
        Joe snorted. "Get real."
        That brought a quick smile to his friend's face, but it was quickly gone and he sighed. "All right, keep your secret, but I had to come. I'm afraid I have bad news."
        Joe wondered what bad news would bring the oldest Immortal halfway around the world to see him. Mentally he braced himself and nodded for Methos to continue.
        "I'm sorry to have to tell you that your friend Sam Hayes was reported dead to the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia a few days ago. Apparently he died of heart failure on some sort of agricultural expedition."
        Joe felt relieved. It was bad news, but also it was old news. "It's okay, Adam. I knew about it."
        Methos looked startled. "You knew? How?"
        "A mutual friend told me."
        Methos absorbed that, frowning, and then shrugged. "I didn't realize the news would have reached you already. I thought it would come best from someone you knew."
        "I appreciate that, Methos. It was above and beyond the call, as they say. Look, let me get you a towel."
        "No, wait, there's more."
        "More?" Joe asked, turning.
        Methos nodded. "This time, it's bad news for me. The woman Sam was watching, Nira Groves, is missing."
        Joe froze. "Missing?"
        Methos nodded again, his expression pained. "She flew into the airport here in Seacouver two days ago, but seems to have disappeared. She was scheduled to fly out the morning after she arrived, but she missed her flight. She's not registered at any hotels or lodgings that I could determine, and her rental car hasn't been returned."
        Curious, Joe pried a little. "What is she to you? You said this was personal bad news."
        Methos sighed, pacing. "She's a friend, a very old friend."
        "What kind of friend?" Joe found himself asking, even though part of him didn't really want to know. Then again, he couldn't be *that* kind of friend, or Nira wouldn't still have been a virgin. The thought cheered him.
        "A wonderful friend," came a soft reply from behind him. He saw Methos' eyes widen, and the smile that lit his face transformed him from homely to handsome. He opened his arms, and Nira ran past Joe to fling herself into Methos's arms, only to yelp and draw back a moment later, staring down at her soaked chemise in dismay.
        "Petros! Look what you've done! You're dripping wet!"
        "Sorry, love, it's raining and I hitchhiked from the airport. I was just so happy to see you that I forgot! I thought someone must have taken your head!"
        She shook a finger at him. "And who would risk killing me on Holy Ground? That was your idea, you should have more faith in it!"
        Joe's jaw dropped. "This is Petros? The guy who killed Sylvanus?"
        Nira nodded, beaming. "And I haven't seen him in far too long, speaking of worrying about friends losing their heads!"
        "Mine's quite intact, for which I am truly thankful!" Methos said, laughing. "I've just been attempting-- somewhat unsuccessfully, to keep a low profile. I'm glad you're okay, though. You had me worried. How'd you end up staying with Joe, anyway?"
        Joe and Nira exchanged a glance, and Nira started to blush. Joe grinned, waiting to hear her explanation. Methos looked from Nira to Joe, and back, and an eyebrow lifted as he finally registered Nira's state of undress and dishevelment, Joe's hastily donned robe, and Nira's blush. He crossed his arms and just looked at her, eyebrow still raised. Nira managed to grab hold of what was left of her composure, and spoke.
        "I came to tell him about Sam, and he was kind enough to offer me a place to stay, since I had none."
        The look of amused disbelief on Methos face nearly set Joe laughing, but Nira was trying so hard to be earnest that he couldn't do that to her. Taking pity on her, he spoke. "What she's not telling you is that she was a little under the weather that first night."
        "Under the weather?" Methos echoed. His gaze ranged over his friends, his mouth still curved in an ironic smile, and he shook his head. "As will I be if I don't get dry. Mind if I use your shower?"
        "Help yourself," Joe said. "Towels are in the linen closet, and if you toss your wet stuff out I'll throw them in the dryer."
        "You're a prince," Methos said, heading for the bathroom, leaving Joe and Nira alone, staring at each other. Nira smiled sheepishly.
        "Thank you. I just didn't know what to say. I've never been in this situation before. It seemed not quite the right way to tell him."
        Joe chuckled. "I don't think he needs telling, but you're right, it's a little awkward. How long have you known Adam?"
        "Adam?" she asked. Is that the name you know him by?" At his nod, she sighed, turning to caress one of his plants as she looked out the window at the rain. "It seems like forever! I can hardly remember a time when I didn't know him. Some of my earliest memories are of Petros visiting the house where I lived as a girl. Not long after that, he took me to the Temple to learn the mysteries."
        "You knew him before you became Immortal?"
        She nodded. "Long before." She laughed. "When I was young, like many foundlings I used to dream of families, and I fantasized that he was my real father. I was terribly disappointed when I learned that couldn't be true."
        "He mentored you, then?"
        "Not exactly, though he would have, had he not had the misfortune to die publicly a few years before my transition. He couldn't return to take me through it, because he'd had to move on by then. But he made up for that later. He's always seemed to watch over me."
        Joe smiled. "Your own personal guardian angel?"
        Nira laughed. "Or devil, more like. I've known him long enough to know that he's no angel."
        Joe grinned, and gestured at her clothing. "Speaking of things celestial, did you know that slip's nearly see-through when it's wet?"
        Nira glanced down at herself, and went scarlet. "Oh! How could you two let me stand there and talk looking like this?" She turned and hurried toward the guest bedroom where her things were. Joe chuckled, shaking his head, and glanced down the hallway, noting a soggy bundle of clothing outside the bathroom door. He retrieved them and put them in the dryer, then went to his own room to prepare for the day.

* * *

        When he emerged, twenty minutes later, he knocked on the bathroom door. Methos opened it, hips swathed in a towel, holding a second one in his hands as he dried his hair. Joe handed Methos his robe.
        "Here, wear this while your clothes finish drying."
        Methos nodded, and took it, started to close the door, then stopped, an odd look on his face.
        "Is this where I ask you if your intentions are honorable?" he asked, a half-smile on his face that didn't quite reach his eyes.
        Joe studied his friend soberly. "I guess you have that right. Let's just say I'd never deliberately hurt her."
        Methos nodded. "I knew you wouldn't, but that leaves a lot of territory uncharted."
        "It does, but it's her choice whether to explore it or not."
        Methos nodded again, and his gaze was open and honest. "You're a good man, Joe, and that's the best I could ask for her."
        "I'm flattered."
        "Don't be. It's the truth. Be gentle with her, she's special."
        "On that you have my word." Joe put out his hand, and Methos shook it firmly.
        "I'll be out in a few minutes," he said, closing the door.
        Joe stepped back and noticed that Nira's door was still closed. He chuckled at the idea that he'd managed to get ready faster than she had, and then headed into the kitchen to put a pot of coffee on. He still didn't have anything edible in the refrigerator, though, and he mentally kicked himself for not having stopped by the store the previous day.
        At loose ends, he went back out to the living room and picked up his guitar, idly strumming chords to loosen up his fingers. After only a few moments, he heard footsteps and looked up to find Nira standing there, dressed sedately in a heather-rose sweater and black slacks. She carried her hairbrush, and it was clear what had been taking her so long when he watched her start detangling a section.
        "Don't stop," she coaxed. "I love to listen to you play."
        He played a bit more, grouping notes together into a melody, watching her brush her hair, and wondering how he was going to explain this. It seemed like he was always going one step further, breaking more and more rules. First revealing the Watcher's secret to an Immortal, then becoming friends with first one, then three of them, now he was sleeping with one. Ah well, life was full of changes, this was only one of many. That reminded him of a song he'd wanted to add to his repertoire, and he slid into those chords, experimenting with the rhythm.
        "That's beautiful," Nira said. "What is it?"
        He grinned. "Our theme song, darlin'." He played a couple of intro bars, hummed the melody just to be sure he remembered it right, and then started to sing.

    "Everything must change, nothing stays the same.
    Everyone will change, no one stays the same.
    The young become the old, and mysteries do unfold.
    That's the way of time, nothing and no one doesn't change.
    There aren't many things in life you can be sure of,
    Except rain comes from the clouds,
    Sun lights up the sky,
    and hummingbirds do fly."

        Nira smiled, and put down her brush to listen more intently as he continued.

    "Winter turns to spring, a wounded heart will heal
    But never much too soon, yes everything will change
    The young become the old, and mysteries do unfold.
    That's the way of time, nothing and no one doesn't change.
    There aren't many things in life you can be sure of,
    Except rain comes from the clouds,
    Sun lights up the sky,
    And music makes me cry." **

        Joe watched Nira's dark eyes fill with tears, and put down his guitar, reaching to pull her into his arms. He held her, stroking her back, and her hair, until she lifted her mouth to his. They kissed softly, without the urgency of immediate desire, more in a sharing of comfort, then she drew back.
        "Thank you, for teaching me to fly."
        "Thank you for reminding me I can," he said. "Now, like I said before, no tears unless I'm playing sad songs, and that one isn't sad so it doesn't count."
        She smiled. "There are many kinds of tears, and only a few of them are sad."
        He chuckled and nodded. "So there are."
        "Is that coffee I smell?" Methos asked loudly from down the hallway.
        His voice broke the spell that held them, and they moved apart. It was enough for the moment.

* * * Finis * * *

**"Everything Must Change" by Ighner. I'd give more info but I haven't been able to find any. I have the song on a CD by Oleta Adams, called "Circle of One" c. 1990. Lyrics not used by permission.

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