by Killashandra


A sequel to Intermezzo, and number four in the series that ate my brain. This story contains homoerotic content and is rated NC-17, so if such things offend you or you're under 18, please don't read it!

This story was written for my friend Deb. To some degree, every story I write is written for her, but this one especially. I have one thing, at least, in common with Duncan and Methos: I often find it hard to express myself when it's most important to do so. Thanks for inspiring me darlin. You are always close to my heart.

Thanks to Melina for Stoopid Question help and cheerleading, and much love to Ellen, beta-reader extraordinaire. What would I do without you?

Cambiata: In musical counterpoint, a nonharmonic tone inserted between a dissonance and its resolution.

Late September, 1996

Police sirens flashed red and blue against a cloud-heavy sky. The knot of people and cars had at last begun to disperse--rather like rats, they seemed to Methos, scurrying into the night. Apparently rabid, racist political fervor could be sustained only so long before even the most stalwart sycophants had to trundle home to pay the baby-sitter and settle in to watch themselves on the late night news.

If Ingrid Henning had gotten her way, the Seacouver police would have been counting bodies tonight, and the baby-sitters would still be waiting. Instead, Ingrid was swimming with the fishes.

His eyes strayed across the street to the still figure sitting on the hood of the T-bird. The instinctive desire to reach out, to offer some kind of comfort, persisted in spite of every voice of reason warning him against it. He knew too well where it would lead. MacLeod was vulnerable, angry and grieving, charged up with raw power that craved release, that Methos knew he could spark into vivid reality with only the slightest effort. It wouldn't be the first time. In fact, it was beginning to seem like this was what it took to bring them together, this unique and bitter blend of grief, betrayal, and death. Only fitting, he supposed, given what they were: two of the most powerful and potentially destructive creatures on the planet.

MacLeod was right. Better to keep their distance as they'd been doing all week. Safer by far. So why did it grate so much to know that Mac had finally, belatedly, realized what Methos had known all along?

The urge to go to him was almost laughably compelling.

Methos looked out at the lights across the harbor, breathing in the scent of gathering rain. Dangerous, the way prolonged proximity to the man wore down his strongest resolve; anything seemed possible, and Immortal recall became hazardous territory. It didn't matter what proof he had that coming here had been the very worst of ideas. He'd been in town only a handful of days, and already whatever defenses he'd had where MacLeod was concerned were shot to hell.

Your own fault, idiot. Couldn't wait, could you? Woke up one day and just had to see him, had to catch a plane straightaway from three months playing monk in Tibet, do not pass go, do not stop for a bit of therapeutic shagging on the way, just flop yourself down on his bed and make yourself at home. Who is it exactly that you think you're kidding?

You knew what you wanted the minute you got on that plane.

Yes, and he'd known Ingrid Henning was headed for a date with a sword, but that hadn't helped anyone, either. Certainly it hadn't made things any easier between himself and MacLeod. As he turned at last and started across the street, Methos found himself thinking it was nice to know that no matter how old you got, some things were ever the same. That sometimes knowing the flame could burn you wasn't enough to keep you from wanting to feel its heat. Death by fire was excruciating, but it went a lot quicker than death by starvation--and he was hungry, in spite of a week of trying to convince himself otherwise.

Hunched with his back to the street, MacLeod radiated 'back off' with perfect clarity. It seemed to win him a wide berth from the few stragglers. Even so, as Methos drew near he could see that the Highlander was only too aware of the excited, triumphant enthusiasm of Wilkinson's supporters; the dark eyes were dry, but gleamed hot with pain and rage and bitterness at the ignorance and bigotry of the men and women he'd saved by killing his friend. Even knowing that it was Mac's own choices that had led them here, Methos wasn't immune to that raw suffering.

"You okay?" he asked gently.

MacLeod didn't answer. Methos sat beside him, close enough to touch; perhaps it was that unspoken support that relaxed the stubborn set of the other man's jaw.

"Ingrid asked me something before she died." The deep voice was rough at the edges, fierce control obviously coming at a cost.

Sighing inwardly, Methos nodded, guessing what was coming. "They usually do."

"She said, what was the difference between her killing them and me killing her."

Such passion in him! Even when Methos guarded himself against it, the man's sheer willingness to feel, to care, touched off the same deeply buried, but essential spark of response in him that it always had. "Good question," he said lightly, with a casualness he didn't feel. "Right up there with chicken and egg."

"So what are you saying, there is no answer?"

Methos studied MacLeod, debating the other man's readiness to hear what he had to say. How much a year could change things, he mused, remembering the night Mac had turned away and let Methos be his sword against Kristin, both one of the bravest and most cowardly acts in the Highlander's long life.

Nothing but courage in that extraordinary face now.

"No," he said at last, "there is an answer. But the real question is whether you're ready for it."

MacLeod just nodded, steeling himself as if for a blow. A lie might have been better. Kinder. But MacLeod's burning compulsion to understand, to find some reason or meaning in what had happened here, was written all over him--and Methos had made a habit of telling the man what he needed to hear.

"Stefanovich killed, and Ingrid judged him. Wilkinson killed, and Ingrid judged him." He paused, letting the words sink in. "Ingrid killed, and you judged her."

Mac went very still, and Methos knew his words had struck home. They burned in his own throat, tasted bitter, cold as steel.

"So who judges me?" MacLeod asked in a rush, a plea in his voice that made Methos wish, against all logic, that there were some answer he could give, some reassurance.

Dark eyes sought his for only an instant, long enough to see that Methos offered no answers, no relief from the pointless grief of what had happened here tonight, no comfort for choices MacLeod had made all on his own and must pay for the same way. Chagrined, fighting tears, Mac looked away.

Wielding indifference like a blade against his own nearly overpowering urge to comfort, as much as against MacLeod's raw pain, Methos pushed himself to his feet.

"You hungry?"

Methos lifted his face to the rush of wind as Mac drove them deeper into the night, but even as he struggled to hold on to the detachment he'd been nurturing all day, treacherous memory seemed to wait for him everywhere. The promise of rain scented the air with the cool, sweet redolence of Pacific autumn, too evocative of another such night almost a year past, a darkened loft, the windows open to the breeze.

They said olfactory memory was the strongest.

He tried to concentrate on the vivid, exhilarating illusion of freedom as the streets disappeared beneath the headlights. Tried not to notice the way Mac's hair, freed from its clasp, streamed over the broad shoulders in dark, satiny waves, the way the big hands curled around the leather grips of the steering wheel. Tried not to remember that he knew how it felt to sink your fingers into that hair, the way those hands could warm your skin and make you feel you'd do anything to have more of that proprietary touch.

Against his will, his gaze swept the other man's body: fine red silk, soft black wool, and underneath, muscles taut with grief and Henning's Quickening. Impossible not to remember sitting in the car with him after Jacob Galati had died, gently rubbing the hot skin at his nape as he'd wept for his friend, Galati's Quickening still sparking in the charged space between them. Impossible not to remember what had happened after. But did Duncan remember it like he did? No telling. That brooding profile, still set so fiercely against the tears he wouldn't shed, forbade Methos utterly from crossing the invisible gap that divided them--a clearly delineated no-man's-land that MacLeod had staked out and guarded all week without ever acknowledging it aloud.

Considering the circumstances under which they'd parted, Methos had expected some strain, some awkwardness, but the constant, guarded wariness written in the Highlander's every word and look had been a rather unpleasant wake-up call. At first he had thought the coolness was on Ryan's account, that Mac was worried about his student, distracted by Culbraith, maybe even uncomfortable with the idea of Richie finding out a little too much about his teacher's extracurricular activities. Methos had played along, had found someplace else to stay, and faded into the woodwork.

But no sooner had Ryan left town than Ingrid had shown up, unpleasantly reminiscent of Kristin, with her own grim, rather more ambitious agenda. Methos had tried to keep in mind that he was a patient man, but had found, to his surprise, that he didn't much care for being woodwork any more. Didn't like being invisible. Worse, he'd found himself entertaining thoughts about Ingrid Henning that involved swords and dark alleys and impulses he hadn't felt so strongly in at least three centuries. What little accord that remained between himself and MacLeod had slipped away in the days that followed, their old arguments cutting with a new, sharp-edged viciousness that Methos was reluctant to analyze too closely.

Tonight, enduring the strained silence in the car, he had to admit he was more than ready to be done with it. He wanted to be let in again, wanted the addictive pleasure of just being allowed inside that warm, focused regard, like he had been for those few weeks in Paris before reality had caught up with them. Didn't change anything, of course. Didn't mean he'd been wrong about anything. On the contrary, Mac's choice to kill Henning only confirmed every cautionary instinct he'd ever had about getting too close to the man. It was still impossible, still dangerous as hell--and it didn't matter. He was hungry, and there was a feast within arm's reach.

Despite the night's coolness, a kind of vibrant energy had risen along his skin, a charge of current that seemed to radiate from the man beside him. He stole another glance at MacLeod and saw only that same stubborn-set jaw, the dark eyes fixed on the road ahead. Mac was still angry with him, the anger drawing palpable tension between them, and even that was a turn-on. Methos wanted that anger, that passion, almost as much as he wanted that muscular body naked beneath him.

A blossom of heat opened deep at his center, and he looked away, watching the moon as it skipped across the tops of the buildings. Christ, he really had to stop this. It had gone on too long already, all those unresolved points of contact, of conflict, stretching back over the weeks and months, too many to count--and in the shape Mac was in tonight, one of them had better keep a cool head, or they might end up doing damage to one another that Immortal healing couldn't erase.

"You know, I'm not really that hungry after all," Methos said at last. "Maybe you should just drop me by Joe's, and I'll get a cab."

"Fine," MacLeod said after a pause that went on just a fraction of a second too long. "If that's what you want." He shut his mouth and said nothing more, the resolute determination not to let anything Methos said or did touch him so clear in that stiff-necked silence.

"Look," Methos said, exasperated. Damned if the man was going to make it easy on him. "It's been a rough day, that's all. I just thought maybe we should call it a night. Get some rest. You look like you could use it."

"Right. Got it." Mac was nodding, his voice grating like stone on stone. "Joe's it is."

The effort it cost Methos not to open his mouth, not to say the other man's name in a tone that surely would have betrayed him, should have won him some sort of prize. There was nothing he could say tonight that Mac wanted to hear, that was obvious--nothing that wouldn't make things worse for both of them. Methos had his own needs, and if he didn't get away from Mac soon, they would both live to regret it, sooner rather than later.

And so he just held his tongue for once and watched the city blocks speed by, trying not to think about how many lifetimes he had waited to find a man like Duncan MacLeod.

Mac shifted the T-bird into neutral, but made no move to turn the car off; the engine rumbled its low purr against the pavement as Methos opened the door and got out. Joe's sign was still on, a few cars still in the parking lot. The moody thrum of blues guitar was faintly audible even from the street.

"Thanks for the lift," Methos said, when it was clear he would have to be the one to break the silence.

"Yeah. Any time."

MacLeod's answer was automatic, the deep voice rough with the lateness of the hour--and they were both caught by it, memory sparking of another time when those words had been a talisman of sorts, a promise of friendship made late one frost-cloaked night. At last Mac looked up, the tangle of Methos' own regret and painful irony reflected in his eyes.

Methos felt a pressure squeezing his lungs and found he couldn't look away.

"It's not gonna work," Mac said, when the moment had held too long. "Is it?"

Somehow Methos made his voice cooperate. "What d'you mean?"

"I mean this. You and me, pretending like nothing's changed, like we can remember how to just be friends. It's not gonna work."

A faint laugh escaped him. "Oh, is that what we're doing? I must have missed the memo."

The other man stilled, his hands resting carefully on the steering wheel. His brows had drawn together. "I thought it was what you wanted."

Dangerous undercurrents ran beneath the surface of the words, and Methos' heart pumped blood through his body with agonizing slowness. Careful. As long as neither of you says anything, does anything you can't take back tomorrow, you're all right.

"Mac...let's not talk about this tonight, okay? Go home. Get some sleep. It'll be all right, you'll see. Things will look different in the morning."

"Not talking about it isn't going to make it go away, Methos."

Methos drew a sharp, silent breath, the gentle chastisement squeezing like a fist behind his ribs. "You know, that's pretty funny coming from you. But don't you think it's a little hypocritical?"

"Meaning what, exactly?"

Six days of waiting, of playing reluctant squire to MacLeod's white knight, pushed Methos past the edge of self-restraint. "Meaning, if you want to get technical, that I'm not the one who's been practicing pathological avoidance all week. If you had something to say to me you've had plenty of opportunities." He couldn't help the bitterness that surfaced, stemming from stillborn, impractical hopes he hadn't really acknowledged even to himself.

MacLeod had gone pale. "And what was I supposed to say? What do you want me to say? That I'll change? That I'll stop caring about what happens to my friends? That I'll be something other than what I am? Well, don't hold your breath, 'cause it's not gonna happen."

"You think I don't know that by now?" Methos snapped. Shit. What had happened to being careful?

Their eyes held. Something hardened in MacLeod's expression, and he drew back a little. "You were right," he said hoarsely, at last.

Sick at the way he'd let his feelings get the better of him, Methos let his hand fall away from where it had been resting on the car door. "Right about what?" he asked wearily. He braced himself against the sword thrust he could feel coming.

"Temporary insanity, you said. You were right." MacLeod shook his head in self-disgust. "I can't believe I ever thought otherwise. You tried to warn me though, didn't you? You knew all along, right from the beginning. Too bad I didn't listen. Of course, what else is new, right?"

Was this it then? As certain as Methos had been that they were heading for a fall, he hadn't expected it quite so soon. He'd tried to give them both some breathing room, tried to put the friendship first--and instead he might have lost even that. The sinking feeling seemed endless, immense. He wasn't ready.

Defensively, he put his hands in his pockets and hunched deeper into his coat. "Go home, Mac."

MacLeod stiffened, his eyes narrowing fractionally. "That all you have to say?"

"Oh, I think we've said enough for one night, don't you?" A laugh welled up; he held it in, knowing MacLeod would consider it adding insult to injury, knowing it really wasn't funny at all.

MacLeod only looked at him for a long moment, as if memorizing him. "Yeah," he bit out finally. "Yeah, I guess we have."

Methos didn't watch him drive away. But when the sound of the Ford's engine faded to silence, he felt it like a hollowness in his chest.

It was very tempting to keep walking right past the club door, across the parking lot, find a pay phone down the street, and get a cab to his hotel. Or better yet, why not the airport while he was at it? Forget about spending another night in that overpriced room, an expense he'd justified as pure self-indulgence, its luxury a small consolation for the bed he hadn't been invited to share. Just fold himself into one of those vinyl lounge chairs and get the hell out of there on the first morning flight.

The idea held a certain appeal; he couldn't deny that it did. However, there was one compelling factor weighing in on the other side of the equation: beyond that door lay a very large quantity and variety of alcoholic beverages, a representative sampling of which might be his for the asking.

A drink, then. Don't think about it just yet. Plenty of time, Mac had said that first night. Still true. Plenty of time to think about just how much damage had been done in those few incredibly stupid moments outside. Plenty of time tomorrow to remember every angry word they'd said and wonder how much of it they'd really meant, to figure out whether there was any point in him sticking around. Tonight, a bit of chemical amnesia would do just fine.

Dawson was nowhere in evidence. Mike, of course, was long gone, the Watchers being predictably efficient at making their mistakes disappear neatly under the rug. Chose the wrong team this round, didn't you, Mikey? Methos thought with some venom. Serves you right for selling Joe out to the likes of Shapiro.

Mike's replacement, a nondescript fiftyish guy Joe had simply introduced as Lou, was at the bar, and some new kid was on stage playing passably good guitar. Good, Methos thought. Better to get a few drinks in before he had to face Joe. Not that he was kidding himself; of course he'd known the likelihood that Dawson would be here, so some part of him must want to talk. Some masochistic part, he thought with a grim, inward laugh. Or maybe he just thought he deserved some kind of punishment for being such an eternal bloody fool.

"What can I get for you?"

"Whiskey. Irish, preferably. Best you've got, whatever it is."

After some searching, the man produced a Bushmill's 12-year that met with Methos' approval. When the second draught had warmed his belly and produced the familiar knee-tingling heat, he began to feel somewhat better. Lou refilled his glass and set the bottle on the bar.

"Maybe I should leave this with you."

"Yeah, thanks."

"You looking for Joe?"

"Only in an ancillary fashion. He here?"

"In the back."

Methos nodded. Writing up his report on Henning, most likely. Our man Lou was reassuringly untattooed, and Methos let himself relax a little. He hadn't officially broken with the Watchers yet--Adam Pierson was currently on a leave of absence--but the writing was on the wall, and being seen with Dawson was probably not much wiser at this point than being seen with MacLeod. Depending which contingency plan he chose for Pierson's retirement, such associations could get messy.

The understatement of the century, Methos thought wryly, applying more whiskey to the tight ache in his throat. If he'd wanted to avoid things getting messy, he should never have come within a thousand miles of Duncan MacLeod. A calculated risk, he'd thought at the time. The perfect situation to finally get some answers about the infamous Highlander, and if it turned out that Methos had been right and the Chronicles hadn't exaggerated, to ally himself with MacLeod and win his trust. That's what he'd been thinking that day, sitting in his flat with his Walkman on, waiting for the buzz that would tell him MacLeod had arrived.

Never in his worst-case scenarios could he have predicted what that one afternoon was going to cost him. The tangible losses were bad enough: his cover blown, his life with the Watchers ended. His Adam Pierson identity was a complete wash on every front. As for the intangible...well. As yet uncalculated, but likely to be considerable, he feared.

"Didn't expect to see you here tonight," came the familiar, gravelly voice as Dawson settled himself on the neighboring stool.

"Yeah, well, that makes two of us." Methos poured himself another generous portion of whiskey. He showed Dawson the label and raised an eyebrow, offering. Joe nodded, and Methos reached over the bar for another glass. For long minutes they drank in companionable silence, the bottle between them.

"Man," Dawson said at last, shaking his head. "I really didn't think he'd do it, you know?"

"Oh, come on, Joe, how long've you been his Watcher? Of course you knew how it would turn out. Didn't you?"

"And you know everything, I guess." Dawson shot him an irritated look. "When did you get to be such an arrogant know-it-all, anyway? I don't remember you being this much of a pain in the ass."

Methos shrugged. "Pierson had a few more social graces than I do, I suppose."

"Which is not saying much, my friend."

Methos rewarded him with the hint of a grin. "Touché."

Dawson studied him with those sharp eyes, seeing too much. "What are you gonna do about Pierson, given it any thought?" He seemed to debate saying any more, finally adding, "Ingrid's Watcher must've seen you tonight."

"Me and MacLeod, you mean." Dawson nodded, and Methos pretended to consider. "Mm. Answer cloudy. Ask again later."

Dawson chuckled. "I gotta admit, I would like to turn you upside down and shake you sometimes."

"You'd have to get in line, I'm afraid."

"Did he talk to you at all?"

"Who, Ingrid's Watcher?"

"Listen, don't make me slug you, all right? I'm talking about MacLeod. Did he talk to you about what happened?" Dawson hesitated. "Is he okay?"

"Oh," Methos said cheerfully, "you know our boy. He takes this sort of thing right in stride. Lives for it, doesn't he? Life and death, right and wrong, that sort of thing? Right up his alley. He'll bounce back in no time flat, you'll see. Just in time for the next Ingrid to come along. Which ought to be in..." Methos pretended to glance at his watch "...about thirty minutes, if the law of averages has anything to say about it."

Dawson was looking at him strangely, tilting the bottle to the light. "How much of this stuff have you had, anyway?"

Methos just shook his head, laughing silently. "Not enough, Joe. Not nearly enough."

An hour and another bottle later, they'd moved to a table. The place had emptied out except for a couple necking in the corner booth and a few stragglers at the bar. Dawson had given up pacing him some time ago and just sipped at the contents of his glass now and then, leaning back in his chair. B.B. King played on the stereo.

The thrill is gone. Right, now tell me something I don't know.

"I left the Watchers, by the way," Dawson said presently, as if casually announcing the time.

Methos nearly choked on his drink. "Say again?"

"Yep. For almost a week, as a matter of fact. Didn't take, of course. But you gotta give a guy credit for trying, right?"

"So when did this happen?" Methos asked, when he'd more or less recovered.

"Few months ago. After you and Mac left Paris." Dawson met Methos' questioning look and shrugged. "Thought I'd give it a shot, you know? Seemed like a good idea at the time."

"But why?" Methos asked, curious in spite of himself. "I mean, why then, after everything that'd happened? I thought you'd straightened everything out with the Paris office."

"Yeah." Dawson looked down at the hand that held his drink, the insignia that marked the inside of his wrist, and sighed heavily. "But not with Mac, I didn't. Came down to a choice: did I want to be his Watcher, or did I want to be his friend?" He gave Methos a meaningful look. "And I thought he could use a friend, seeing as how there didn't seem to be any lining up outside his door just then."

Methos looked away. "He understood why I left when I did."

"You sure about that?"

He could feel Dawson's eyes on him, merciless. Irritated, he made himself meet them, refusing to let this line of inquiry go any further. "I'm sure. Don't assume you know everything, Joseph."

Dawson held up his hand in a gesture of surrender. "All right," he said mildly, "I'll let that one go." He paused, studying Methos closely. "So, you want to tell me what's going on with you tonight? Or am I supposed to guess?"

Methos took a long draught of the smooth liquor, keeping his expression bland. When he'd come in here, he'd thought he'd wanted to talk. Now he thought maybe all he'd really wanted was, just for a little while longer, not to be alone. "Nothing going on, Joe. You know me. Eternal spectator, staunch defender of the status quo. I'm just here for the drinks."

Dawson shrugged with affected disinterest. "Hey, have it your way, buddy. Doesn't matter to me one way or the other." He closed his eyes, as if concentrating on the music, and set about ignoring Methos as thoroughly as possible.

Oh, the thrill is gone baby. It's gone away for good.

Eventually, Methos knew, he'd have to stop drinking. Eventually Dawson would want to close the place, and he'd have to get himself back to his hotel, and for that he'd have to sober up, or risk making an easy target. But at the moment he really was not in favor of returning to a state of sobriety. Maybe Joe would let him crash on the couch in his office.

After a while, Dawson stirred. "You know, I saw you guys drive up earlier."

Methos had been rocking his glass absently back and forth along one edge of the table. He stopped. "Oh?"

"Yep." Dawson was playing with his own glass now, rolling it slowly against his palm. "Looked like Mac was pretty upset when he pulled outta here." He paused, and looked at Methos. "Looked like maybe you were, too."

I'm free now, baby. I'm free from your spell. Free, free, free now, baby...

Methos looked away, smiling a little. "Looks can be deceiving, Joe. You're a Watcher. You of all people must know that."

Dawson nodded thoughtfully. "You know, that's true." He considered. "I mean, take yesterday afternoon for example. The three of us talking here in the bar. From the looks of things no one would have guessed that you might actually have given a damn how Mac felt about this whole mess."

"And who says I did?"

"If you didn't, why'd you go with him tonight?" Dawson countered.

Methos didn't miss a beat. "Pure entertainment value."

"You? The guy who told me he'd sworn off blood sports somewhere around the second century?"

"Insurance, then. Wanted to make sure we didn't have a repeat of Kristin."

"Huh uh. Ingrid was no threat to you. She never killed an Immortal in her life that she didn't have to, and you knew that. Care to try again?"

Now that it's all over, all I can do is wish you well...

Methos almost laughed. "Temporary insanity," he said. Can't believe I ever thought otherwise.

Dawson was smiling too. "Yeah," he agreed, "now that I'd believe."

"Oh, you think that's funny, do you? Think it's funny that I'm losing my marbles?"

"Nope. I think it's funny that you're finally willing to admit it." He chuckled. "Mac'll get a laugh out of it, that's for sure. Can't wait to tell him."

Methos stared at him for a long minute. At last he managed to find his voice. "You're a bastard, Joe Dawson, you know that?"

Dawson sighed and nodded as if regretting it. "Well, you know what they say, takes one to know one." He put down his glass, picked up his cane, and got to his feet. He pointed at the whiskey bottle. "You about done with that? I'm callin' you a cab."

Methos blinked up at him, surprised. "You kicking me out, Joe?"

"Damn right I am." Dawson gave him an opaque look, not without some measure of affection. "What are friends for?"

Unfortunately, his nicely numb state of inebriation had begun to wear off even before the cab pulled out onto the road. Immortal constitution could be damned inconvenient at times like these--his own in particular, paired as it was with several millennia of conditioned alcohol tolerance. Idly, Methos toyed with the idea of going the grad student route again in his next incarnation, only this time he'd choose chemistry. Surely there must be a way to invent an Immortal-immune intoxicant. And wouldn't that make him popular at parties?

He snickered at that, fighting not to frighten the cab driver by laughing until he cried.

How many times in his long life had the ability to laugh saved his sanity? You had to admit, the whole situation was pretty funny, after all. Human nature, the great equalizer. Because as it turned out, it didn't matter how long you'd been around, or how much experience you had, the human heart had its own rules. He'd proven it yet again. In spite of ample opportunities for damage control and against every voice of sense he possessed, somewhere in the past year he had let himself think in terms of what he wanted, not what he needed, and had completely lost hold of the important facts.

He'd told himself that he was here because he was involved in the Game now and had a stake in the Highlander's survival, because he liked Seacouver this time of year, because he had nowhere more interesting to be--a dozen reasons to explain his presence in a place where his own identity was a liability, with a man who was plainly less than comfortable with his presence. But none of those almost-truths quite covered what had happened tonight, did they? That stark reminder of just how quickly MacLeod could get under his skin, just how well-equipped they were to hurt one another. MacLeod had been a walking nerve tonight, vulnerable, grieving; Methos should have known better, kept it together better. Should have seen how much pain Mac was in and made allowances. They'd certainly done as much for one another in the past. The memory of a warm embrace on a cold night in Paris surfaced, painful in its simplicity.

Yes, Mac had needed to hear the things Methos had said to him tonight, but even more, he'd needed a friend; that's what Dawson had been trying to tell him.

Not that it was news. He'd known it for a long time--perhaps since the beginning. Known that whatever his own reasons for his perpetual circling in the MacLeod orbit, Duncan's reasons were much simpler. Friendship. Trust. The old battle against loneliness and despair, a battle with which Methos was intimately, infinitely familiar.

Rain had begun to fall, and he leaned his face against the window of the taxi, looking up to watch the raindrops falling toward him like beads of light, seeming to drop straight out of the street lamps as they passed. He remembered waking to rain pattering against the portholes of the barge. Remembered watching Duncan sleep with that troubled expression that had done nothing to lessen the man's dark beauty. Remembered what it had cost him to get out of that bed, how the pressure in his chest had felt like suffocating. Not unlike how he felt right now.

His own fault, really. What had he said that first day? Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, mi casa es su casa. It didn't get much simpler than that. He shouldn't have been surprised that a man like Duncan would take him at his word.

What terrified him, he admitted now, alone in the back of a cheap taxi and entirely too sober for such admissions, was how profoundly that uncomplicated longing spoke to him. How deeply it touched him, and how much he wanted to just reach out to it, and never mind the risks.

Can anyone live for five thousand years and say they did nothing? Risked nothing? Merely stayed alive?

It'd be pointless.

"Driver," he said suddenly, leaning forward, "I've changed my mind, I'm not going downtown. Turn around, please."

With an eloquent look of a variety normally reserved for people suffering senility or other mental disadvantages, the cabbie did as he asked. "Your dime, man. Where to?"

As he gave the man the address, Methos found himself fighting back a grin at the sheer breathless uncertainty of it. They might go out in a blaze of hellfire, but damned if he didn't feel young as a teenager. How long had it been since he had felt like this, done something this crazy?

You've never done something this crazy, he thought, and the grin escaped after all, something warm and reckless and afraid blooming within him.

Pulling up in front of the dojo, the buzz washed over him, strong and sweet, and Methos drew a breath of relief and apprehension. Inside somewhere, Duncan would be sensing him, too. Would be pulling his sword, moving on silent feet toward the door.

The vivid mental picture made the fine hairs stand up on his arms, the back of his neck; his eyes went to the windows of the loft, searching for light or movement, seeing only darkness. It occurred to him belatedly that he couldn't be entirely sure of his welcome and that it might be a good idea to plan accordingly.

"How much do I owe you?"

"Eight fifty."

Methos handed him a twenty. "Keep it, and do me a favor. Wait fifteen minutes. If I don't come out, consider it a gratuity."

"You got it."

Methos climbed out into the rain, tucking his coat around him and jogging for the door, feeling in the pocket for keys. As always, he couldn't help the little flush of satisfaction it gave him to hold the tangible evidence of MacLeod's trust in his hand. What would the man say if he knew Methos had carried those keys with him from Egypt to Greece, from Paris to Tibet, in the year since Mac had given them to him?

For the second time that week, he let himself in.

The front hall was dark, and no lights shone in the dojo, but the inside doors were open, and Methos sensed immediately that he wasn't alone. His heart sped up, and for the first time it occurred to him to wonder whether the Presence he felt was Duncan's after all. Stupid, stupid--pulse beating hard at his throat, apprehension chilling to a more visceral fear, he snaked a hand under his coat and drew his sword, turning his back instinctively to the wall.

"Mac? Is that you?" And if it's not, where the hell are you?

For a long moment there was no answer, and Methos' tension ratcheted up a notch. Something was moving in the darkness. Something silent and lethal.

A shape resolved itself out of the deep shadows inside the dojo, tall and broad-shouldered in the doorway. What light there was gleamed in a silver arc, the blade of a sword coming down to rest with the point near the floor.

Duncan stepped forward into the faint light of the hallway, his eyes and the katana the only clearly visible parts of him. "Methos." His voice was as hoarse as if he'd been shouting. "What are you doing here?"

Relief washed over Methos, and in a rush he let out the breath he'd been holding. He let his sword fall. "Jesus, Mac. Give me a heart attack, why don't you. You always wander around the place with the lights off?"

The katana flickered in the shadows as Duncan flipped it around and tucked it behind his arm. "Figured I could surprise whoever might be coming to my door at two in the morning."

"Well, you succeeded." Methos' pulse was still beating entirely too fast; drawing a deep breath to steady himself, he caught a whiff of the pleasant, animal scent of sweat. "Midnight workout?" he said without thinking. He flushed a little as soon as the words were out and was glad the other man couldn't see it.

Duncan shifted slightly. "Something like that." He hadn't moved back out of the doorway, hadn't invited Methos in. "You still didn't answer my question. Why'd you come?"

Methos could feel the tension rolling off the other man in waves, dangerous and unpredictable. Why hadn't he planned what to say? Only the truth came to his lips, simple and unvarnished. "We need to talk."

"Thought we'd said enough for one night," Duncan said roughly.

"Yeah, listen--" Methos realized his sword was still in his hand and sheathed it, moving a step closer to Duncan's silhouette. "I'm sorry about that. I shouldn't have pushed it."

There was a silence. At last something eased a little in the set of the other man's shoulders. "I shouldn't have gotten so upset. You were just being honest with me about something I didn't want to hear. As usual."

"All the same, maybe you didn't need to hear it just then."

The rain swept against the glass doors, against the brick outside, and when the answer came it was so quiet he almost didn't hear it. "Yeah, maybe not."

Only a sword's length between them, now, and Methos could just make out the shape of his face. So long since they'd touched one another. The ache he felt was boundless, a compelling urge to close the distance, to bury his face against the warm skin at the other man's throat.

"Do you want me to go?" he asked at last.

The faint light glinted in the other man's eyes. "No," he said hoarsely. And then with that relentless courage that was his alone, he confessed, "But I'm afraid of what will happen if you stay."

Methos felt his pulse beating heavily at his throat. So many meanings in that simple revelation. "I just want to talk." He moved closer, the smell of the other man's musk strong now, almost intoxicating. "Please, Mac. Let's go upstairs." He smiled a little, knowing Duncan would hear it in his voice. "I could really use a beer."

Not that funny, as old jokes went, but comforting in its familiarity, and Duncan responded as he'd hoped, moving back out of the doorway, letting his guard relax for the first time since he'd appeared out of the darkness.

"Okay?" Methos asked, wishing he could see his face.

"Yeah, okay."

Without another word, perhaps not trusting his voice, Duncan turned and led the way across the darkened dojo.

In the elevator, under the unforgiving light of the one bare bulb, Methos got his first good look at Duncan. Whatever he'd been doing when Methos had arrived, 'workout' didn't begin to cover it. His muscles were trembling faintly with exhaustion, and though his body had cooled, the dark blue tank top and sweats had been soaked through with sweat. His hair still clung to his neck. In the close quarters of the lift, his scent was overpowering, not exactly sweetness and roses, but working wonders on Methos' tired old body nonetheless.

But whatever Duncan had been doing down there, it had plainly not done the trick, because under the exhaustion and the flush of physical exertion, he looked as strung out and tense as Methos had ever seen him.

"I'm all right," Duncan said, not looking at him as the elevator began to slow. "So you can stop looking at me like that."

Methos shrugged. "If you say so."

The lift stopped, and Duncan pulled up the gate with a bit more force than was strictly necessary. "I just said so, didn't I?" He strode to the kitchen, turning on the light over the island, and went to the fridge to pull out a bottle of water and a McEwan's, wordlessly handing the latter to Methos. Shedding his coat, Methos watched him open the water and drink half of it down. Then Duncan closed his eyes and leaned one hand against the counter, running the cold bottle over his neck, plainly reaching for calm.

Methos swallowed and forced his eyes away, opening the beer and drinking some down in self defense. It helped, a little.

Too soon, the dark eyes were studying him curiously, and he had to look up, to meet that unsettling gaze. "What is it with you, anyway?" Duncan asked at last. "Why do you always have to make everything so difficult?"

Methos couldn't help a disbelieving laugh. "I make things difficult?"

"You heard me. You're always poking that nose of yours into everything I do. You act like I haven't got the sense of a groundhog, like it's a miracle I ever functioned before you came along, and you have to do everything in your power to keep yourself from pushing me in front of a bus and taking my head just to put me out of your misery." There was no ire in it, just that patient, level regard, and that threw Methos badly.

"I do not," he said intelligently.

Duncan was nodding. "Right, of course you don't. See what I mean? It doesn't matter what I say, you've got to say the opposite. So why do you keep coming back? Is it the entertainment value? Is that it? You just get off on pushing my buttons?"

"You noticed! Why, Mac, I do believe there's hope for you yet."

But Duncan wasn't smiling. He was watching Methos with that deep, implacable gaze, with that same wariness he'd shown since the moment he'd come home to find Methos lying on his bed. "It's not funny, Methos, not to me. Not any more. I need to know why."

Something like panic washed over Methos, and he took a long swallow of his beer to cover it. Twice in one night, faced with the only question that really mattered. He must be losing his touch.

Duncan had closed half the distance between them. He could touch Methos now, if he wanted to. "Is it so hard?" he asked quietly, almost gently. "To tell me what you want?"

Unable to stand still under the pressure of that steady gaze, Methos pushed himself away from the kitchen island and moved a few paces away, but his mind provided no miraculous escape clause. He'd been right; coming here had been a crazy idea. What the hell had he been thinking? More importantly, he thought sardonically, what had he been thinking with?

Plainly content to wait indefinitely for an answer, Duncan finished his water, threw away the bottle, and got another one, his eyes watching Methos the whole time. He came over and sat on the couch. Methos, at last, made himself sit in the chair facing him and searched for something to say that would make it all right, some version of the truth that would let them go on from this painfully long night without irreparable damage being done.

"I meant it, you know," he said finally. "When I said we were friends. Whatever else we are, that hasn't changed. We just...forget, sometimes, that's all." His mouth twisted faintly. "Me more so than you, maybe." He glanced at Duncan and saw he was listening intently, holding to Methos' words as if this were his last chance to understand something essential to his perception of the world. Methos knew he should have hated it when Duncan did that, looked to him for insight, for answers, but he couldn't deny the way it made him feel. "Duncan, I--" Christ, this was hard. "I want us to be friends. I do value your friendship."

"But?" Duncan said, hearing the unspoken.

"But there's too much at stake. I can't always afford to put that first."

The other man drew a sharp, barely audible breath that sounded like pain before he closed himself off, his face set in hard lines. "There's more to life than survival. You must know that."

"Life is survival." Before the other man could open his mouth to argue, Methos leaned forward, seized by the intensity of this one truth that had driven him for so long. "And I want you to live." He held the dark eyes with his own, not letting them go, seeing the spark of surprise and comprehension as it caught in the other man's gaze. He nodded, feeling the heat in his face but refusing to look away. "It's true, I am an old cynic, and I do have a pressing interest in the continued preservation of my own skin, but I wouldn't be here if your survival didn't matter a great deal to me. Sometimes that means I have to say things to you I know you don't want to hear. Things maybe a friend wouldn't say. That doesn't mean I don't regret it."

Duncan was leaning forward now too, arms braced on knees. The strain of the last few days was starkly visible in the pale, taut lines of his face. "Why me?" He searched Methos' eyes--searching for the hidden blade, no doubt. "Because I'm too important to lose?"

He needed so badly to believe it, Methos almost couldn't answer him for the pressure closing his throat. "Something like that, yes," he managed finally.

The dark eyes gleamed bright in the light from the kitchen. Duncan looked away, unable to hold Methos' gaze any longer, and for a moment Methos thought he would finally let go of that fierce control, as Methos knew he hadn't yet. Hadn't let himself cry, hadn't sought relief save for the brutal and ultimately insufficient adrenaline release downstairs that had left him shaking with exhaustion and no closer to acceptance. Punishing himself, Methos thought, watching him struggle with it even now. Atoning.

He'd done it again, Methos realized with a sinking feeling. Told Duncan the truth--but not really what he needed to hear. Duncan had understood him, all right, but how was the guy supposed to believe it when he couldn't see anything past his own perceived failure, his own unworthiness?

Duncan made no concession to the painful tension Methos could read now in every line of his body. Instead, he turned his face away, watching the rain as it painted delicate skeins down the windows, glittering orange from the street lamps outside. "Thank you, Methos. I...appreciate you being straight with me." He swallowed and glanced down at his hands. "I don't pretend to understand it, but--"

"Duncan," Methos interrupted, all the difficult moments of that long, long night coming together in one single point of decision where his own needs and Duncan's converged. "Look at me." Duncan's eyes found his, eyebrows drawing together in a question. Methos drew a deep breath and got up. And it was easy then, to go to him, to let himself sink to his knees in front of him, between his feet. To put his hands on those warm, trembling thighs and hold those expressive eyes with his own. "Stop punishing yourself. You made a choice. It was the best choice you had at the time. Ingrid knew that, and you knew it. And nothing that went on tonight is going to change my mind about the fact that you are the best hope for our kind that I have seen in a very long time."

A shudder ran through the other man's body, and Methos felt it through the light contact of his palms against Duncan's thighs. Their eyes held; Duncan's were wide, deep as night. Then he looked down, his hands closing hesitantly over Methos'. For a moment Methos thought he would reject that intimacy, push him away.

Instead Duncan said his name huskily, like a warning. "Methos--"

And those warm hands were sliding up his arms, heating him unbearably even through the knit of his sweater, pulling him in against strong thighs and gentling his throat, his neck, holding him still as broad thumbs caressed his face, as that sensuous mouth found his and opened him up, owned him with the first deep, incredibly erotic stroking of his tongue.

Every nerve in Methos' body came awake in the space of one attenuated heartbeat. Desire he'd kept on hold for too many days ignited in a flashfire of urgency, making him grasp for something to balance him; his hand found Duncan's cotton shirt and clung, feeling solid muscles and seductive heat beneath the thin fabric. Desperate for air as his mouth was held captive by Duncan's sweetly annihilating assault, all soft heat and raw hunger, he tried to breathe and got only that incredibly arousing scent of sweat and MacLeod, layered faintly with the old-leather scent of the couch that awoke memory in a rush and brought him to swift, impatient hardness. By the time Duncan's kiss was finished with him he felt like his heart's fierce beating would shake his body apart.

Duncan drew back, cupped hands framing his face, eyes searching his. "I missed you," he said simply. "Still want to talk?"

Methos leaned close between his thighs, leaned into the searing heat that had risen between them. He spread his hand flat against the warm, damp curve where the muscles of Duncan's chest met his ribs, rubbing his thumb against the small nub delineated under the thin cotton. "What do you think?" he breathed and tilted his face up for the other man's mouth. He closed his eyes as Duncan shuddered under the pressure of his thumb, found his mouth again, and took it with straightforward hunger.

Overheated, Methos broke away only long enough to get his sweater off, Duncan's hands helping him. Even that was too long without Duncan's tongue; when at last Methos had it again, he pushed the other man back into the couch as he sought to taste him more deeply, to find and map every nerve and pleasure point in Duncan's mouth. His fingers sought and found Duncan's responsive nipples, rubbing them to hardness through the thin fabric and feeling his own tingling in sympathetic approval. It felt so good to touch him at last--warm skin and damp cotton, beautifully taut muscles and tendons, hard thighs gripping Methos' waist and warm hands pulling him close--that it was all Methos could do not to give in to the ache between his own thighs, just press against the nearest part of Duncan he could reach and let friction carry the day.

Duncan had ruched Methos' shirt up, those wonderful hands of his everywhere on Methos' back, kneading and petting him fervently as they kissed. In sensation overload, it took Methos a long, dizzying minute to recognize the deep tremors he felt as something more than his body's own desperately grateful response. When at last the awareness reached him, he forced himself to back off a little, draw a steadying breath.

Beneath him Duncan was breathing hard, eyes tightly shut, trembling with the effort to keep himself together against what looked like pain, but was, Methos realized, a painful need for release he'd locked away for hours. Methos' gaze raked the other man's body, restless and oh-so-enflaming, seeing the formidable arousal pressing up insistently against the dark blue cotton folds. God, didn't he know how that felt. Wanting only to relieve that distress, he bent and pressed his open mouth against the urgent flesh, breathing warmth and licking him through the cloth, tasting salt and a sweet, slippery fluid that made his insides clench with hunger.

Duncan made a choked sound, broken and pleading, and jerked under him, hands gripping painfully tight on Methos' shoulders. "Methos, don't--"

"It's all right," Methos countered, sliding his hands under the bottom edge of the tank top and finding the elastic waist of his trousers, slipping his fingers underneath to touch hot skin. "Just let it go. I've got you." Duncan's hands were cupping his throat now, a wordless plea that held nothing of 'don't,' not in any language. Methos lifted the elastic and urged Duncan up, pulled the pants down, baring him to mid thigh.

At the sight of him, so flushed and ready, the fine skin of his groin dewed with perspiration, Methos' own cock throbbed painfully hard against his jeans, pleading with him for mercy. Ignoring it, he pushed Duncan's shirt up, baring the curve of the other man's belly; Duncan's eager sex brushed the bared skin and left a streak of glistening fluid that made Methos' mouth water, his breath catch.

"Christ, Duncan--" He looked up, finding the dark eyes dilated, watching him. With no concession to finesse, Methos stripped off his shirt and unsnapped his jeans, unable to help a soft groan of relief as he freed himself from the snug prison. He reached inside his shorts to soothe the ache; his cock throbbed at the attention, already slick with anticipation.

And Jesus, Duncan's eyes were hot, following his every move. Duncan swallowed as if envying Methos' hand, his cock fairly leaping in sympathy; in helpless response Methos released himself, took Duncan's hips in his hands and licked him from base to tip, not a tease, but a promise, meant to soothe.

Duncan surged under his hands, made a sound like suffering. Already starved for more of him, Methos obliged that wordless plea and held his hips down, took that beautifully straining cock into his mouth. Oh, yes. He'd wanted to do this since the first moment Duncan had strode into the loft a week ago, had longed to just go to his knees before the man and open up his jeans, take him as deep into his throat as he could. Senses saturated with the other man's scent, head spinning with the pleasure of it, his nerves threatened to overload from the scent and taste of him, the silken-velvet feel. Methos stopped trying to hold him down and just pressed his tongue all along the length of him, his fingers cupping Duncan's tight, furred sac. The double stimulation crested in a hard, nerve-tingling vibration against his tongue. It made Duncan writhe and moan deep in his throat, made near-orgasmic pleasure seize in Methos' belly.

Duncan was panting now, grip fierce on the back of Methos' head as he fought not to shove himself all the way down Methos' throat. He took short, jerky thrusts, his hips lifting in helpless instinct. Methos stripped the confining sweat pants off and urged him with mouth and hands to take what he wanted, giving in to the pressure of Duncan's grip, stroking his flanks in encouragement. Yes. Oh, yes, like that, Duncan. Do it... Nostrils flared wide, trying to breathe, he closed his eyes and just for a moment let himself be lost in the sensation of that fierce, overwhelming possession. Heat and aching pleasure coiled hard between his legs; somewhere in his euphoria he knew that the moment Duncan came in his mouth, it would finish him.

"God--" Duncan groaned at last, control fragmenting, fists clenching in Methos' hair. "Please--harder, harder, Methos--" his voice broke on Methos' name, the suffering manifest, pushed past the point of bearing. He was shaking now, so badly it broke the fierce rhythm he'd set. The sound he made when it faltered was close to a sob.

Methos had some idea how he felt. His whole body sounded bitter objections as he forced himself to let the other man go, to raise his head and breathe. Seeing the raw torment in the other man's face, the plea, he pulled himself together with an effort of will and managed to put a few hand spans distance between them. Duncan made a wordless sound of protest, but when Methos gentled him at the back of the neck, urged him up, Duncan came to him with a gratifying lack of hesitation. So sure. So willing to go where Methos led, even now. Overcome by his own endless craving for that lush mouth, Methos gave in to base need for just a moment, twined his fingers into the thick hair and pulled him close, kissing him fiercely until Duncan was trembling, his cock begging heatedly against Methos' stomach, his panting breaths coming like entreaties for mercy. "Trust me now, yes?" Methos asked huskily, when their mouths parted.

"Yes," Duncan breathed, assent written all over him, in the sweet, fervent pressing of his body against Methos', in the deep almost-black of his eyes--in the breath-stealingly vulnerable shudder and gasp that escaped him in the moment when Methos lifted his thighs, pushed him back against the couch and bent to tongue him in that most intimate of places.

"Oh, God--" Duncan choked. For a moment he held absolutely still, sprawled back against the leather with his legs spread wide for Methos, the fierce trembling of his overtaxed muscles the only motion as his body struggled to cope with what Methos was doing to him with his tongue.

Eyes closed, transported by the intimacy of the moment, the salt-sweet-musk flavor, Methos held him like that, tasted him, coaxing Duncan's body to give in to him, to yield to the pleasure, telling him with every tender caress that he deserved it, that it was over now, that it was all right to just let it go. He felt it when it started to happen, felt Duncan's long, indrawn breath as some threshold was crossed, the deep shudder that slowly started to seize hold of him. He writhed gently in Methos' arms and pressed closer, let Methos press his tongue inside. "God--" The word ended in a sob.

Then Methos was fucking him with his tongue, lost in his own rapt ecstasy as Duncan shuddered again and again and made no sounds that could be identified as words, and when the tight opening had yielded fully to his gentle demand Methos rose up without thought and pressed himself to that sweet hole, letting it close hotly, tightly around him, sliding--oh god--deep inside.

Duncan cried out, a naked vocalization of such pure, grateful surrender that it detonated in Methos like a star, bright and hot at his center. His eyes opened wide; he hadn't realized he'd closed them until he found himself watching the man beneath him in wonder, taking in the flushed surrender, the splendid abandon. He withdrew, thrust again. Perspiration sprang up all over his body, Duncan's heat closing like a soft glove around him and suffusing him in pleasure as Duncan clung to him with fierce strength, surging to meet him on every stroke, sobbing his pleasure and pain with deep, hoarse cries as they clung together, as Methos thrust into him over and over with near-punishing force, driving him towards a precipice Duncan sought with every cell in his body. It took all of Methos' strength to give him the rhythm he needed, but the reward was the transported ecstasy on Duncan's face, the fervent desperation in his grip.

"Yes," Methos found himself gasping, urging Duncan on as his own body reached its limit, as his heart seized with impending release he couldn't hold back any longer. "Let it go, come on--" He caught his breath on a sob and came like a string of fireworks, sparks of heat bursting fast and bright, and it was ecstasy, but his striving was for Duncan, his words for Duncan, breathless and desperate, "Yes, do it, so beautiful, yes--"

And it happened, he was there at last; Duncan froze, clasping Methos to him, burying his face against Methos' neck and finally shuddering hard, letting go with a deep cry, spilling untouched between their sweat-drenched bodies in strong, urgent pulses that shook them both. Methos held him against it, braced him, finally pressed Duncan's thighs up to let him finish against Methos' chest.

At last it was enough, and panting, trembling with release, Duncan collapsed back against the couch, all the fierce tension in his body released at once so that he was boneless in Methos' arms, a shaking, overheated mass of flushed skin, tousled hair, and eloquent, bone-deep satisfaction.

Methos would have liked to stay inside him for hours, but his own strength had been taxed severely, and his muscles didn't seem to want to cooperate. Finally he was forced to pull out, frissons of aftershock delicately jolting through him. Letting Duncan's legs fall, heavy and boneless as the rest of him, Methos found his own gasping satisfaction in lying between Duncan's thighs, half on top of him, half on the floor where his own legs had collapsed under him. They were both a mess of come and sweat, and his knees were never going to be the same, but at the moment he didn't give a flying fuck. He closed his eyes and just let himself feel it for a while, just let himself ride the exquisite waves of completion, the inexpressible amazement of what he'd just been given.

"You know," he remarked hoarsely after a long, measureless time, "I knew inside a week of when we met that we were either going to fuck each other, or kill each other. But it never occurred to me that we'd end up doing both at the same time."

The rumble of Duncan's laughter was a sweet vibration against his cheek, the deep chuckle a welcome counterpoint to his own. Duncan's hands came up, stroking lightly over his shoulders.

"God, Methos," he breathed at last, when the laughter faded. "I've never--I've never come like that. Just from someone inside of me, I mean." A little shiver ran through him at the memory, and his hands cupped Methos' head. "That was incredible."

"Mm. Worse ways to go, definitely," Methos agreed, nuzzling absently at the soft hair that dusted the other man's belly. He attempted to keep curiosity from sparking, but failed, Duncan's confession insistently begging the question. At least it wasn't the first time he'd tried it, but who, exactly, had he been trying it with? Involuntarily, Methos' brain began considering and rejecting possibilities; when Warren Cochrane's image sprang to mind, Methos willed himself to shut off the dangerous train of thought before it could go any further.

"Come up here, will you?" Duncan tugged upward on his arms, and with a groan of protesting muscles and returning circulation, Methos managed to struggle out of the rest of his clothes. At last he got the lower half of his body onto the couch and settled in the warm, comfortable space Duncan made between his thighs. Before long, Duncan began stroking his temple, soft, slow strokes of his thumb that made Methos want to forget about any and all speculative questions, forget about the cooling stickiness between their bodies, the need to move, and just sink into blissful unconsciousness.

For once, for this one perfect, remarkable moment in time, he'd gotten it right. It seemed so obvious now, so easy. Just a small thing he'd offered, just a little compassion, a little reassurance. Why had it been so hard for him to give it, so hard for Duncan to ask for it, when it was really so easy? Somewhere he remembered that he knew the answer to that, but it felt far away now, inconsequential.

"You asleep?" Duncan murmured after a while.

"Depends on if you want me to move or not."

"Not really, no."

"Then I'm awake." Mostly. If you don't keep petting me like that. Duncan's fingertips were stroking the back of his head now, tracing patterns in his hair.

"Is it too late, or will you let me say I'm sorry?"

The other hand was drawing smoothly up and down Methos' back, coaxing him deeper into the haze of contentment. He had to make an effort to form an answer. "Right now, I'd let you sing me a Scottish lullaby, in Gaelic if it made you happy. But what for?"

"For the way I've been acting. For pushing you away, when that's the last thing I wanted. And for Ingrid." Duncan's voice roughened at the name. "I know it wasn't your problem, and I'm sorry I tried to make it be."

"Oh, I dunno. I seem to recall I did a pretty good job of that on my own. Poking my nose in, like you said."

The petting hand at his back paused for a moment, then resumed. "Lawyer, doctor, Indian chief--whatever I need, isn't that how it went?"

Methos felt heat rising to his face. Trust Duncan to recognize the serious intent behind that casual quip. The cheeky pup was learning to see through him entirely too easily. "Well, you know," he said lightly, "old habits die hard."

"Lucky for me," the other man countered, fingertips tracing his hairline. His tone became rueful. "You make it easy to forget how many times I've relied on that. On you." Before Methos could fully absorb that little bombshell, Duncan sighed deeply and went on. "Things have just been so mixed up the last few months, it seems like I haven't been able to think straight about anything."

"There does always seem to be a crisis in your immediate vicinity, doesn't there?" Methos shifted a bit, propping his chin on his hand so that he could see the other man's face. "But then again, it's not as if I didn't know that."

Duncan's mouth twitched, the smile showing in his eyes as he traced Methos' splayed fingers with his own. "No," he said softly, "I guess you've had fair warning."

In self-defense against that look, Methos sighed in mock-annoyance. "You know, before I met you, I went decades without anything really dire happening in my life."

"Sounds pretty boring. How'd you stand it?"

"Ever hear of a game called Tetris?"

That won him a quiet laugh. "Tessa used to play that. She would get so mad over it. Finally made me take it off the computer."

A complicated sea of responses rose over Methos at the mention of that name. It would always remind him of Alexa, that was inescapable. Different as night and day, from what he knew of Tessa Noel, but they were inextricably linked in his mind: two extraordinary women who had died too young, their ghosts forming a connection of sorts between the two Immortal men who had loved them, the shared understanding both painful and oddly comforting.

"You'll have to tell me about her some time," he said.

Duncan looked surprised for a moment, then thoughtful. "I'd like that. You'd have had a lot in common, actually." He stretched, and groaned deeply, an articulate expression of exhausted depletion. "Right this minute, however, I am desperately in need of a shower and bed, in that order. Any takers?"

"How far's the bathroom again?"

"Come on, Methos, you're not exactly a featherweight. Up." Duncan poked him in the tender place under his arm with the unerring accuracy of a man well-trained in aikido.

"Ow! You're the one who dragged me up here. All right, I'm getting up." He did so, with effort, then stood looking down at the brave and morally upright Highland warrior, admiring the debauched, wanton picture he presented: hair a wild tangle, dusky skin streaked with the evidence of their passion, wearing nothing but one faded, sorely abused blue tank top. There really ought to be a law against him. Or several. "You know," he mused, "It's amazing. Just when you think you've seen it all..."

Duncan took the hand Methos offered him and struggled to his feet. "I think I'll take that as a compliment," he muttered, making a strategic retreat towards the bathroom.

Under the soothing heat of the shower, Duncan's hands soaping him lazily as they exchanged drowsy, heated kisses, Methos decided there was no question about it. He had died and mistakenly gone to some sort of blissful afterlife he most definitely didn't deserve. Duncan himself was practically asleep on his feet--which didn't slow the man down a bit, his appetite for sensuality apparently as instinctive to him as breathing. His touch, alternately gentle and insistent, had awakened so many pleasure points on Methos' body and relaxed him so thoroughly that he was beginning to think he might just dissolve and wash right down the drain.

Nevertheless, to his infinite surprise, when Duncan slicked his half-aroused sex with something cool and slippery and took him firmly in hand against Duncan's own tumescent erection, his enervated body rallied to the challenge. What followed--a lazy rhythm of pure erotic affection and mutuality--proved, without doubt, that he'd been wrong when he'd believed he knew what heaven felt like.

And somewhere in the heated, steamy haven of Duncan's embrace, his body's reactions overwhelmed him; he was too raw, laid open by the tenderness beneath the slow, uncomplicated urging of that intimate grasp. When he felt Duncan throb against him at last, he came in blind response, his orgasm rolling through him like the sea and reducing him to shudders of helpless capitulation.

After, Duncan held him, murmured his name against his ear and kissed him softly. "I did miss you, you know."

Without effort, it went through the defenses Methos had been trying to rebuild, undercut every shred of rational caution he'd managed to hold together. His arms tightened around Duncan involuntarily, and he closed his eyes against the painful surge of feeling. For one long second the words lodged in his throat. But the closeness, the absence of walls between them tonight, had fed his soul in a way he hadn't even known he needed, all the more devastating for the knowledge that it couldn't possibly last.

He let the words escape, a breathless whisper that felt like it cut him. "I missed you, too."

Pressed close as they were, naked skin aligned the length of their bodies, he felt more than heard the soft intake of breath, the slight acceleration of the other man's heartbeat. And then the almost silent chuckle.

For a moment, the feeling of exposure was excruciating. But Duncan's embrace eased the rawness, made it all right, and he found himself smiling, relaxing as Duncan's cheek rested against his own. "What's funny?"

"Us," Duncan told him, that husky voice warming him through. "Still think it's just chemistry?"

Methos turned his head and bit him gently at the spot where neck and shoulder met, feeling the frisson of reaction. "You tell me."

Duncan nuzzled the tender spot behind his ear in retaliation. "I honestly don't know. But whatever it is, it's not 'just' anything."

"Yes, well. I'll grant you that one." Methos closed his eyes, just resting against him. He was beginning to drift.

"Water's getting cool," Duncan said after a while, and reluctantly, movements slowed by exhaustion, they got out of the shower and dried off with those wonderfully thick towels Duncan always seemed to have in abundance.

Rubbing his hair dry, Methos emerged from beneath one of them to meet Duncan's eyes in the mirror; the other man was leaning against the doorframe, watching him. Methos straightened and found himself momentarily caught, just as Duncan had been, by the image of the two of them naked in the glass.

Gaze unfaltering, Duncan moved to stand behind him, shadow to his pale form--and something made Methos rise to his full stature, abandoning the habitual Adam Pierson slouch to match him, height and shoulder-breadth, acknowledging something that he didn't even fully comprehend. Dark and light, their images reversed, different as earth and alike as two halves of a coin. And what did Duncan see?

Smoke and mirrors, he thought, a familiar, sardonic humor glinting in his reflection's eyes.

"Think we'll ever make any sense of it?" Duncan asked at last.

Methos let his expression relax into something like a real smile and turned away from the mirror. "God, I hope not. Takes all the fun out of it."

Duncan's look was a little pained. "You've got a warped idea of what qualifies as fun, don't you?"

In spite of himself, Methos had to laugh. "Believe me, you've no idea."

Later, drifting in exhausted, obscenely comfortable bliss, he lay beside Duncan in the bed and let the rising tide of sleep wash over him one gentle wave at a time. Rain still pattered softly at the windows. He could feel Duncan's weight beside him, could feel the warm pressure of Duncan's foot resting gently against his own, the only point of contact between them. He was so tired, but something in him insisted that he hold on to this night just a little while longer, keep the morning away just a little while longer.


The sleepy whisper reached him on the cusp of awareness.


A warm, callused hand found him in the dark, spreading lightly over his ribs. "You'll stick around for a while this time, won't you?"

There was no reservation in it, only straightforward, honest hope. It made something in Methos' chest turn over. What spell had Duncan cast, working magic on him body and spirit, that he should find it so utterly impossible to feel anything but this persistent rightness between them, this dangerous acceptance?

"Don't see why not," he said at last, finding no other answer in him but yes.

Duncan shifted closer in the dark, the heat of his body warming Methos like sunlight. His hand slipped around Methos' midsection, cupping lightly now against his belly. "Your enthusiasm is less than staggering," he murmured near the region of Methos' ear, something of his Scots-bred lilt rolling the words off his tongue as he descended towards sleep. "But since you've decided to stay, I think I'll let it slide."

And before Methos could think of anything to say, the soft rhythm of breath against his cheek had deepened, and slowed, and Duncan was asleep.

They all die, Methos reminded himself, closing his eyes, closing his own hand gently around that curled, resting one on his stomach, feeling the strength in the heavy bones of the other man's wrist, the square, capable fingers. It was an old truth that held no power to hurt him. His armor, that reminder, familiar and worn from use. Protection against the inevitable. They all die.

It was only as he drifted off at last that his guard faltered, permitted the rebellious thought to surface, the equally inevitable truth, that every rule had its exception.


One Week Later

Dusk was beginning to come on outside, but the fierce battle being waged continued, its sweating participants oblivious to the shadows lengthening across the floor of the dojo.

Circling. Both men tired now, both bearing the crimson evidence of a parry made just a little too late, of reflexes just a hair too slow. What had begun as a spar had turned, somewhere in the last hour, to something more, the contest of swords and wills taking on a life of its own.

Despite fatigue, Methos' blood sang with the pure adrenaline high of the fight. He had pulled out nearly all the stops now, drawing on skills and techniques he hadn't used in centuries to match his opponent's formidable arsenal. As he had known from their handful of spars in the past, they were nearly evenly matched. In reach and flexibility, strength and endurance, their differences were so slight as to balance each other out, and MacLeod was unbelievably quick for a man of his build. Methos knew the other man's body intimately now, as if it were his own--but that was no advantage, because after a week, MacLeod knew his just as intimately.

Their sheer physical awareness of one another shimmered in the space between them, not a distraction, but a simple, overwhelming fact, a promise of payment due the winner, just one more component of the savage, intricately balanced dance they performed.

Slip the blow, and a lightning shift to strike--

MacLeod was too fast, shifting his momentum and closing his guard before Methos could deliver the blow.

Circling again.

Thrust--blocked--turn the edge, foot behind toward the right side--

Impossibly, MacLeod blocked his second thrust, reversing his blade in time. The grin again, that fierce pleasure in the fight that Methos doubted MacLeod even knew he wore. The katana came for him in a blinding arc, and for an instant he knew what it would feel like to face that grin for real--Jesus, he's fast--Methos turned a trick of his own and struck flesh, drawing back through the blow, raising a bright slash of brilliant red on the other man's thigh. MacLeod fell back soundlessly, pain drawing his lips against his teeth.

It was something about the sight of his blood--so much of it blooming scarlet all at once--that pushed Methos past his fatigue, past the edge of thought, and suddenly it was deadly earnest, and he found himself following his thrust, attacking with all the agility and dire intent he possessed. MacLeod's confusion lasted only a fraction of an instant; then he answered with a burst of speed and a fierce intent of his own, and what had been a spar, and then a dance, became something else again, something so essential it spared no quarter for fairness or mercy.

And in the end, when it was over and Methos knelt bloodied and gasping, knowing what he'd needed to know, sweat stinging his eyes and Duncan's sword stinging hotly against his throat, Methos didn't question the relief he felt. Duncan's eyes, wild and hot with feral triumph, held the only question left between them.

That question, he was only too happy to answer.

Much later, when the wreckage they'd made of themselves and the loft had been righted once more, when all evidence of blood and sweat and other fluids had been shampooed from their skin and hair and cleaned from the rug, they sat like civilized men over chess and tumblers of scotch. Methos toyed idly with the thought of actually spending the night in his newly rented flat, knowing it for the fiction it was. That serviceable but solitary bed had yet to win out over the rather convincing enticement of his own personal, Highlander-sized bed warmer.

It was evident, however, that Duncan's mind was not on the game. When he gave Methos his third opening in half an hour, Methos left off looking at the board and poured them each a fresh drink instead.

"Something on your mind, Mac?"

Duncan's eyes rose to his, the frown line between his brows easing. "Sorry. Is it my turn?"

"Not that it matters, since you lost about three moves ago, but no." Methos studied the other man's distracted expression, trying not to let his own apprehensions, buried assiduously thus far, stir to life. "Want to talk about it?"

Duncan shrugged and rose, pacing towards the window. "It's nothing, really. Just a little restless, I guess." He sipped at his whisky, then turned to find Methos watching him. Their eyes held for a long minute. Duncan seemed to be debating something, and Methos felt a sudden sinking in the region of his stomach. So complacent, he'd been, letting himself believe that things could be simple between them--

"You feel like getting out of here?" Duncan said, not at all what Methos had expected.

It took him a minute to get his brain and his mouth to work together. "Sure," he said at last, the relief a sudden lightness. "What'd you have in mind?"

Something like a dare flickered in Duncan's eyes, and the corner of his mouth quirked. "Joe's playing tonight."

Methos stilled, turning that over in his mind. By unspoken agreement, they had so far managed to steer clear of Dawson's keen eyes and associated complications. He'd known only too well that it couldn't last, this brief, isolated interlude of peace, of friendly arguments and companionship and the frequent, astonishingly passionate bouts of lovemaking that had ranged from one end of the loft to the other. But without discussing it aloud, they had both done everything they could to defend what time they had, to make the most of it.

Part of Methos was bitterly reluctant to break the spell a moment sooner than necessary. Yet he had to admit he was starting to go a little stir crazy--and something in him warmed unexpectedly at the knowledge that Duncan wasn't afraid to face Dawson with this. Maybe it would be all right. He supposed they couldn't hide out in the loft forever, much appeal as the idea might hold.

It was Duncan's smile, mischievous and conspiratorial, nervous under the casual bravado, that convinced him. "Right," he said brightly, setting his drink down and getting up. "Joe's it is, then."

When they got to the club, the welcome voice of Joe's guitar greeted them, so they procured beer and took the last small table near the back. Dawson's grin, when he saw them, lit up his face.

For nearly an hour they listened to him play, sitting shoulder to shoulder, not touching. Methos couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this particular combination of nervousness, anticipation, budding arousal, and general contented gratitude for the state of the world. It was the first time they'd been out together like this, and his awareness of MacLeod beside him was total; another kind of pleasure entirely, to sit here in the crowded club and be so attuned to the other man's body, to play the game of look-but-don't-touch with him. The cold beer helped, but wasn't nearly enough to cool the heat where their thighs brushed casually under the table.

Duncan was in the same boat, he knew, and that just made the game all the sweeter.

By the time the set ended, Methos found he'd caught a bit of Duncan's recklessness--whether that was the beer, or the warm flush engendered by his imagination and Duncan's nearness, he didn't know. Seeing Dawson making his way toward their table, looking right at them, mischief seized him. He leaned over to Duncan as if to tell him something; under the table he laid his hand on the man's inner thigh, mere centimeters from certain spontaneous combustion. Duncan jumped, almost knocking over his beer.

"Methos!" he hissed.

All innocence, Methos looked at him askance. "What?"

"Move your hand, is what," Duncan growled under his breath. Oh yes, very nice. Methos' pulse leapt in answer.

"I'd like to," he murmured, voice rich with promise, "but don't you think we should wait until we get home?"

Duncan shot him a dark look that didn't quite conceal the heat of his response. "I think you should think about paybacks, before you go looking for trouble." Dawson was almost upon them now, and the look vanished, a smile talking its place. Duncan rose smoothly, leaving Methos to snatch his hand back in the nick of time. "Joe, terrific set tonight. Let us buy you a drink?"

"Thanks, Mac, I do believe I will."

The picture of magnanimous good humor, Duncan ushered him to join them and signaled a waitress. "If you'll excuse me, I'm going to avail myself of the facilities and leave you two to entertain one another." He leaned toward Dawson conspiratorially and looked meaningfully at Methos. "Watch out for this one, Joe. He isn't really housebroken."

"Yeah, tell me something I don't know," Dawson said ruefully. When Mac had gone, he turned to Methos, eyebrows rising. "Well, he's certainly in a good mood. What'd you do, brainwash him?"

"Drugs," Methos said seriously. "Slipped 'em into his haggis. He doesn't suspect a thing."

Dawson laughed. "Now why didn't I ever think of that?"

Methos inclined his head with affected modesty. "Watch and learn, Joseph."

But Dawson was looking at him oddly. "Man, you too? Must be something in the beer." Methos' face warmed. Was he that obvious? Apparently so, if the surprised, pleased look on the Watcher's face was anything to go by. Before he could say anything, Dawson chuckled. "Don't worry, I'm not gonna give you a hard time about it. It's just good to see you two on speaking terms for a change."

And why should he have been surprised? It wasn't like Joe Dawson had ever missed much. He was saved having to answer by the merciful arrival of the waitress, bearing gifts presumably from MacLeod: three glasses and the requisite bottle of very expensive Scotch.

His reprieve was short-lived. Dawson leaned back in his chair, studying him with a bemused expression. "You know, when you left here the other night, I would have been willing to lay real odds against seeing you in here again for at least three or four months."

"MacLeod's spoiled you, Joe. We're not all of us so predictable." Methos smiled a little, acknowledging the debt. "And unlike some others I won't mention, I do occasionally listen to my well-meaning friends."

Dawson's eyes widened. "Somebody pinch me--I do believe that was almost a thank you. You sure you don't want to take that back? What if somebody heard you?"

Methos sighed, shaking his head. "Typical. Show a little appreciation, and they rub your nose in it." His eyes were drawn to the far side of the club. Duncan had reappeared and was making his way towards them. Feeling an aching heaviness somewhere that he couldn't have named, Methos watched the man move, that long stride, the category five charisma unmistakable in any crowd.

"So, is Adam Pierson still among the living?" Dawson asked, drawing his attention back.

"For the time being." He debated saying anything more, then decided it was relatively harmless. "Seems best to resign quietly and stay out of the way, let the Paris office just forget about him for a while. It'll make it a lot easier for him to disappear later on."

"Just like that, huh?" Dawson studied him, the Watcher's face carefully neutral. "Wave the magic wand and no more Adam?"

"You know how it is, Joe. It was just a matter of time."

Duncan had stopped halfway across the room, having run into some acquaintance or other; now he stood wearing a polite, listening expression, brow slightly furrowed. He'd taken the clip out of his hair. Bastard probably knew what a sucker Methos was for that leonine mane of his. Probably meant to give Methos a taste of his own medicine and seduce him, right here in front of his own Watcher. Probably, it would even work.

Dawson had followed the line of his gaze. "You sure you're up to this?" he asked quietly.

"What d'you mean?"

"I mean this," Dawson said with perfect clarity. "You. Mac. Duncan MacLeod, magnetic north for all bad guys and way station for stray Immortals. Are you up to it?"

"I'm tougher than I look," Methos said lightly.

"You sure?" Dawson countered, intent. "Because it's been a rough couple of years for him, Methos. He's not as tough as he looks."

Methos looked at him sharply. "You protecting him, Joe? From me?"

But Dawson just gazed back at him steadily. "Just reminding you of what you already know."

Unable to hold that too-perceptive gaze, Methos looked away, eyes drawn against his will to the broad-shouldered figure across the room. Flash images played through his thoughts. Duncan, fighting his own darkness in Darius' church, trusting Methos with his sword. Duncan's arms on a cold night on the Seine, comforting him for Alexa. Duncan's eyes, deep as night when they fought, hot with passion when they kissed. From one heartbeat to the next, a bone-deep certainty settled in Methos, took hold, and became a part of him, forever inseparable from the whole.

The answer to Dawson's question came to him as lightly as starlight, as matter-of-fact as breathing. Too late, he thought, didn't say. Too late, Joe. Passed the last exit a while back, I'm afraid.

Just then, Duncan looked up. Seeing Methos watching him, his expression lightened, the barest hint of a smile lifting the corners of his mouth; in that moment, Methos knew, simply and without fanfare, that the strong, too-fast beating of his heart was nothing like fear.

 The End