Crosses to Bear
by Maygra de Rhema

continued from part two...


The door opened easily on a hidden motor; a trap waiting for him. Andres Suru was not a fool. He wanted both of them. Package deal. Kill one, get one free. MacLeod had no choice but to step through. He could feel Methos close by, the elongated signature stressed once more--more accurate an indicator of his lover's mental and physical state than anything, when MacLeod bothered to check. And right now, he didn't much care for the indication of state.

He left the door open and looked... up. An arena. Actually it was an atrium but it had been... decorated... for lack of a better word. A ritual acted out from a tradition Mac didn't recognize from any history books he'd ever read. Not quite Greco-Roman, not quite African... closer to Egyptian.

Daniel in the lions den. He got to be Daniel and the raw meat was staked out in the center.

Except Methos wasn't raw; a swell of relief washed over MacLeod as he saw his friend. He didn't look terribly different than he had when he disappeared.

Only now he was bound to a slender metal pole, hands behind him, head bowed over his knees.

And trembling. From threat or the unnatural position or emotion, Mac couldn't tell as he closed the distance. The slender figure jerked when Mac touched his shoulder; then Mac lifted his lover's chin and saw nothing in the glazed hazel eyes.

Methos was quite literally drugged out of his mind. A curse as Mac realized why the body was trembling so violently, seeing the leather manacles on his lover's wrists, the raised metal stud pressing into the tender point just at the base of his palms. The drugs had lowered Methos' resistance--robbed him of the ability to deny that ancient pattern, his will necessarily concentrated elsewhere. Every movement, every breath reset those controls. MacLeod swore and slid the edge of the katana against the leather, severing it and had to shift quickly to catch his partner as he slumped forward. He cut the other band as well, swearing more harshly. Methos was covered in sweat, the T-shirt soaked, the tight jeans no better--swollen flesh still seeking an escape at his groin. The trembling had eased some but not entirely. The glazed expression had as much to do with pain as the drugs. The latter would work their way out fairly quickly he hoped, the former... Mac wasn't even sure he could ease the prolonged arousal.

It was no different than helping his lover work through a rather bad Quickening, he reasoned, already gathering the body up to get them out. Another part of his mind screamed in protest that Suru had known those triggers at all. Methos had sworn he had told no one--his trust was for Mac alone in having this kind of control.

But he was learning. No judgments until Methos was in shape to give him a coherent answer. No accusations until he was safe and recovered. And Andres Suru was dead.

"Sir MacLeod come to slay the dragon?" A deep voice challenged and Mac whirled, seeing no one... the mocked up gallery above empty of observers. "And found only what... the chattel?"

"You wanted this!" MacLeod called, rising, not even noticing that his stance put him protectively above Methos' body. "You wanted a challenge. Why here--why like this? What you've done to him--what is the point??"

"I did nothing but capitalize on another's handiwork--on their artistry. I shall have to practice it on my wives. To control another so... You knew of this, then? A disappointment and a surprise. I did not think him so capable of surrendering such control to another. You must teach me your methods of persuasion, Highlander. He gave me nothing that I asked for when I had him."

"And you hated him for that?"

"Hate him? Not at all, Scotsman," the deep voice sounded surprised. " I want the secret of his strength. I need to know before I take his head. I will not be another Darius. I will not give up who and what I am for another. I knew Darius before he met his holy man--a strategist, a warrior. And then what? A priest who saw nothing beyond his faith. Before I take that ancient one's head I must know what to expect. Two thousand years ago, I could not garner the answers. There was no weapon, no threat I could use because he was ready to die, and pain was just pain. And then I lost him. He vanished. I thought him dead."

"And then by chance, I met a mutual friend. She was not willing at first to tell me--But the name Kronos was on her lips and where Kronos was, Methos could not be far behind."

Cassandra. MacLeod closed his eyes. She had led this madman to Methos willing or unwilling.

"And I had the whole tale. And knew that he, as much as I, would be cautious about taking the head of someone so powerful."

"What do you mean?

"Did you not wonder why he could not take his Brother's head? When they left him, there was still a bond... but no longer. How much of Kronos would he have kept for himself? How much of it could he bear and remain himself? I know that fear... that caution. I hunt carefully, Highlander. For you. For him. One to balance the other. But not until I understand what has kept him strong and sane for five thousand years. And you will be my key to that secret."

The voice was gone and MacLeod whirled at the harsh murmur/feel of another Immortal. The door he'd entered by slammed shut.

"When I have your head, I will understand him better. I will know what he fears and loves, what trust he has placed in your hands. And when I take him, I will understand better how to remain myself. I will be the man I am when I take the Prize."

A section of the wall moved, a panel, and Suru emerged. He was... MacLeod had to consciously clamp down on a sharp intake of breath.

Had MacLeod not been prepared to battle for two lives he would have called him magnificent. The Magnificent Warrior. A warlord as steeped in the traditions and practices of his people as MacLeod was. Chieftain, Warlord, and Prince all rolled into the large muscled body. The black skin gleamed like an ebon night beneath the colorful trappings of tribal gear, and the smile, for all the ruthlessness in the man's soul, was engaging and warm--and appreciative--a warrior who preferred worthy opponents. Not a man who would prey on the weak or untrained. A man who he might even have once been able to call a friend.

"Not enough to take the challenge as it was meant?" MacLeod said coldly. "To offer it as a warrior to a warrior?"

"I did once. He refused. What was I to do then? I knew what he was... knew that he had kept his three millennia from both guile and strength. But not why. He had been a Horseman. A scourge my people feared would cross the continents. And what I found was a scholar with a sword. A man who understood languages and strategy but who had wearied of fighting. I took him as my teacher. He did not want the role but faced with death he accepted his lot. I did not need him to teach me to fight but to think. But he did not teach me how to survive and that was what I wanted most. So I sought to take it and could not. I could not break him."

"Then why not kill him?" MacLeod demanded. "As opposed to this... what you've done here?"

"You are a mere child, Highlander, despite your prowess. Have you heard nothing? If you take an Ancient, you risk becoming more like that Ancient than yourself; as for that... ," he pointed his blade at the still prone figure on the floor.

"Do you know why what you see there at your feet disturbs you so, Highlander?" the Voice called. "Why this manipulation of the body makes your stomach turn? Our souls belong to Allah, To God. Our minds are the products of how and when we are raised, our hearts tied to those lessons of the mind without control. But our bodies... those belong to us. They cannot belong to anyone else. Pain, pleasure, all our own. We control them as nothing else in our lives. Look at yourself, MacLeod. A warrior. In another age you could have been a god. As could he have been--as was I. But you and I were born too late. The old gods were dying or dead and the new ones... well, they have no bodies. Without bodies they cannot be controlled and therefore are eternal."

"Interesting philosophy," MacLeod spat out. "Justification for what?"

"For this battle. For why we exist at all. He already belongs to you, Highlander. Heart and Body. I couldn't touch the one... but the other? This... gift... I discovered in him--this key to himself he gave you, was how I knew you would come. There is an answer for what you see--a release for him, but he would not tell me. I have left him thus for nearly a day, to see if this would break him or if he would surrender to me what he gave to you. He will not. He is still stronger than I. But I will have his strength. Once I have taken yours." The warlord spoke softly, that Voice echoing his sadness. "Because our time is drawing to a close and there is a Prize to be won. And I will have that Prize, Highlander. Do not doubt it."

"Over my dead body... " MacLeod said softly.

"No. Over his," Suru said. "If only because he will give to you what should be won," and he lunged in with more speed and strength than MacLeod had suspected.

The heavy blade slid off MacLeod's, Suru unconcerned as he whirled, blow following parry following slash and the Highlander found himself completely on the defensive. This was no skilled swordsman only. He could see it in the dark eyes, the calm and controlled movements of a master. Not a madman. Not at all, despite his bent toward torture. They were not acts of perversion; they were a means to an end. He was as glib with words as he was gifted with his blade and there was no way for MacLeod to deny his admiration. He had heard Joe's files on this man; a man who ruled his small tribe, his small country fairly and justly, who remained out of the game save when there was a defined purpose to re-entering. Suru tolerated no chances taken to reach the Prize; his was a studied campaign.

No question of his worthiness--only a question of skill and planning. And much of what he had learned he had gained from the man whose body and soul they fought over.

He moved the battle, drawing Suru away from where Methos lay. But the warrior was not interested in the ancient at the moment, nor would he use that prone body as hostage for MacLeod's surrender. He wanted this fight, this battle. He wanted to best the Highlander blade to blade. Less honorable to have taken Methos, but even if and when that time came--Mac had no doubt that his lover would face this warrior with a sword in his hand and not bound or pilloried for execution.

Only MacLeod didn't want it to come to that--because the only way Suru would face Methos now was over MacLeod's dead body. And Mac had no doubt that this intelligent, powerful man, who had the command of a Voice like Kantos and Cassandra's, would know on his death every secret Methos had ever surrendered to MacLeod.

His having that knowledge would not necessarily assure a short life or a quick death for the oldest Immortal.

"You have no idea of the workings of power, do you Highlander?" the Voice asked. "And the ancient one has made no effort to teach you. A pity. For if you had, you might be as worthy as I to take the Prize." Another flurry of blows and this time Suru got within MacLeod's guard and agony seared across his side. Suru had his reach and he was as quick as a jaguar on the run, graceful as a panther.

"Manipulating the game doesn't seem quite honorable, Suru," MacLeod said, fighting off the effects of that compelling sound. "Why not take the heads as they come? If Allah demands diversity then do you not bend His will by trying to force your personality to remain when you take in the wisdom of others?"

"Then my will would not be stronger than theirs and I could not take them at all," Suru said with a smile. A smile he did not lose as MacLeod attacked, the flurry of blows driving the black man back. Out of the corner of his eye MacLeod saw Methos move. The outcome of this battle was by no means set and Mac could only pray that, if he lost, Methos would have strength enough to take Suru without giving thought to honor or fairness--realizing Suru's honor would allow taking Methos on as an equal by the strength of his age alone.

"You break their wills before you challenge them," MacLeod accused, disengaging, a small grin of satisfaction when he realized Suru was blooded. "And yet you call it fair."

"Understand their wills. Not break them," Suru said a flash of anger in the dark eyes, the Voice faltering.

And MacLeod heard it--recognized it from the Quickening he had take from Kantos. He could have kicked himself bloody for falling under the same spell again. For the first time hearing the fear behind Suru's words. A sore spot, a weakness. The Warrior did not like being accused of cowardice.

"Is not demanding his surrender not a kind of breaking?" Mac demanded. "You tried to break him then."

"Ah, I see. But I was young and too eager, Highlander," Suru said, Voice once more intact. "What I have done here is but test his will. It is not broken."

"But you would have. What you fear, you will subjugate," MacLeod spat out, his own voice cracking across the arena like a bell peal. "You didn't take his head because you fear him. Not just the loss of your self--but the idea that you might be less than what he is... or even what he was. I know what it is like to take on the personalities of what I fear most. I survived it, Suru. Could you? Can you?" he demanded, watching the dark face grow angry. "There is no honor in what you've done, Warlord. There is nothing in you to make you worthy to take the Prize or even vie for it."

"And your honor? Where is it, Highlander? That you would take another man's chattel? That you would so eagerly throw your life away for what was damaged two thousand years ago?"

The dance was becoming more deadly. Suru no longer fought from the high pedestal of righteousness.

"He is not a coward to stalk an opponent from a distance. You can't justify your actions to me or to Allah, Suru. You can't even justify them to yourself."

"And you seek to make me angry by this challenge to my philosophy," Suru said, evading MacLeod's blade once more, but not entirely as the colorful baldric-like cross guard was severed and fell to the floor.

The Highlander grinned at him, summoning the same gallows humor he had used with Kronos and summoning that monster as well from deep within. And every other abhorrent nightmare of madmen he had killed in four hundred years, all of them. Letting them judge one of their own. He understood Suru better now, mistaking that honor--and it was there--for strength. But one could not supplant the other. Methos had been telling him that for three years and only on seeing this warrior did he understand how twisted honor could become. Worse so for Methos who thought his own tainted--tainted by men such as this--their honor a mask for what, in their cowardice, they could not face.

"I don't need you angry," MacLeod said. "I am pissed off enough for both of us," he snarled and Suru understood how deeply his fear ran as The MacLeod, the infant from the untamed Highlands of Scotland, set honor aside for strength and skill.

The blow, when it came, was as much a surprise to Suru as it was to MacLeod. A swift counter from the rear that altered into a tight-in body sweep, leaving the dark man startled by the sudden gush of blood from his abdomen. "You'll see the Prize someday, Andres," MacLeod said." But it won't be first hand."

A jerk and pull and it was over, Mac staring down at the body as the air seemed to charge itself. The high dry static electricity of desert lands infiltrated the air. He had but one moment to meet the still glazed gold-green eyes before he was lost for a time to a madman's dream of power.

Not since the death of Kronos and Silas had Methos felt and remembered such a backlash of power along the link forged between him and MacLeod. His recollection of a similar experience in taking the heads of Abraham Holly and his student, Martin Grady, were lost in too much pain to bring to mind easily. But he felt Suru. This Quickening surging along that bond like a rushing tide. Not the direct effects that MacLeod suffered, but enough to chase the last of the drugs from his system. Enough to burn through him like a fever, overloading senses and nerve-endings already laid raw by the extent and depth of Suru's most recent torture.

And enough to keep him from moving while the two thousand years of Suru's manipulations of power tore through the Highlander in an elemental feeding frenzy. The atrium roof shattered, raining glass down on both of them, the sound not enough to drown out the scream that was ripped from MacLeod's throat.

Not shared, just felt. Methos disproportionately glad it had been MacLeod rather than himself that had taken the Warlord. Those urges would have overwhelmed Methos first hand as they threatened to do now, second hand. His fingers craved the feel of steel, his urge was to slice through the darkly tanned throat bent to the ground not ten feet from him.

But it passed, mercifully and quickly, and he moved, certain he was no threat to MacLeod and equally certain he might have another ten minutes left to him before he passed out. But he made it to the Highlander's side and waited.

MacLeod swore as he rose to his knees, his whole body tingling, burning--aching. He drew a deep breath and then another, centering, grounding himself, giving the older Immortal's Quickening some time to settle. To ease into something less raw and immediate.

"Mac?" A voice, not a touch, baritone slightly slurred but recognizable and MacLeod turned to see the olivine eyes watching him anxiously from a pale, exhausted face. The pupils were still slightly dilated from the drugs or the prolonged arousal or just fatigue and MacLeod had to fight the post Quickening urge to take his partner right then and there, to take him by force.

No! Half his mind cringed away from the thought, knowing it was the Quickening, it was Suru , and not a desire of his own. Another half of him remembering, seeing the slender body aroused, drugged past resistance but not past response. He wouldn't say no. His brain and desire and will trying for a compromise. What is happening to me? He could only stare at Methos, not certain why he couldn't get control of his thoughts, his emotions.

Vague images filtered through his brain, the familiar planed face watching his so worriedly right now, that expression twisted into something else... fear... panic... pain... He closed his eyes against it, felt Methos' hand come to rest lightly on his arm and MacLeod grabbed at the wrist. The gasp and the movement registering at the same time--Methos in his exhaustion not able to resist as MacLeod summoned unthinkingly what Suru had done willfully and cruelly.

"Oh, God, Methos, I'm sorry!" Mac said hoarsely, darker, twisted thoughts fleeing as his partner bent over double, that response no longer one of pleasure but of painful need. He pulled Methos into his arms, against him, fogged brain trying to remember or recall the quickest way to ease that torment.

It wasn't necessary. Methos was too weak from fatigue to sustain the reaction for long. It faded slowly with a soft hiss of relief. And then a different release as the body went limp.

And even that helpless movement roused a violence Mac recognized even as he fought to subdue it. This is what he goes through every time, he recognized pulling the lax body close and bending over it protectively. He had been close enough in recent months to ease Methos' reactions to Quickenings but all he had seen were the physical effects, the mild personality shifts that faded within a few minutes or sometime hours. That ancient will exerted with considerable force to subdue what he gained along with the power inherent in a Quickening.

And Mac fought to emulate that will. All too aware of the warmth of the body tucked against his. He sat up, pulling Methos against his chest and found his hands reaching for those wrists again, reaching for the snap on his jeans.

No! Not quite the Voice but the revulsion mixed with the desire and he fought it until he shook and found a still place to wait the urges out. Remaining there unmoving in body or mind until his lover stirred.

"Mac?" Again that ageless concern, the slender fingers reaching for his face and he pulled back.

"Don't," MacLeod ordered hoarsely. "Can you walk?"

The gold-green eyes narrowed as Methos shifted and sat up. "Yes," Methos said, will alone dragging him to his knee to face his brother. "Mac, let go. Let it work through you." A coaxing tone, soft, persuasive and MacLeod nodded because it would make the older Immortal shut up.

MacLeod got to his feet and managed to offer a hand to his lover and steady him. That movement reassuring the older Immortal somewhat.

"Mac, you know what this is... let it go," Methos said again when the broad hand closed over his arm fiercely.

"I am. I will," MacLeod said harshly. "Can we get the hell out of here, now?"

It took time to find the panel door, more time to walk around the building to where Mac had left his car, the Highlander gaining strength and control with each step. By the time they got into the car, he even managed to check his lover and was dismayed by what he saw.

That same iron will was keeping Methos conscious. That and his concern for his lover. Otherwise he looked hardly in better shape than after his near fatal encounter with Holly. The downside of having so little extra flesh being that when exhaustion set in, it showed in every line and plane of the older Immortal's face and body.

Mac didn't even try to suggest a shower once they reached the loft, simply helped Methos strip out of the sweat sodden clothes and settled him in the bed, sitting next to him until he fell into a restless sleep. Then sought the shower himself, warm and clean almost a viable exchange for calm and controlled.

But not quite.

He watched Methos sleep for awhile, recognizing in the tossing of the slender body an echo of his own restlessness. The Quickening settling slowly still. But the images had faded, leaving behind only a vague unease. A part of him knew he should call Joe, to tell him of Suru's death if he didn't know already. That Quickening had probably played havoc with at least a few power stations in the area. But he was reluctant to do anything other than sit on the edge of the bed and watch Methos sleep. He felt calmest then, letting the strong feel of the other man's signature wash over him like a familiar breeze. Staying quiet even when Methos began to toss in earnest and Mac reached out a hand to soothe him.

And wakefulness came too soon. Two hours, less by minutes. MacLeod smiled as the hazel eyes focused on him.

"You should try to sleep some more," MacLeod cautioned.

"Can't seem to. How are you?" Methos asked pulling himself upright and folding his long legs under him.

"Edgy. Some. Getting better. You?"

The hint of a grin. "The same. Hungry. And I smell."

"That you do," MacLeod said with a chuckle, a little rough, as he leaned in and Methos met his mouth but the kiss was oddly flat, as if Mac didn't want to arouse anything more than comfort.

"I'm okay, Mac. Really," The older Immortal said softly when they parted.

"I believe you. Get a shower and I'll see what kind of a meal I can get together quickly," Mac said and rose off the bed, leaving his lover to watch him thoughtfully before gathering clothes and heading for the shower.

MacLeod watched him, that errant calmness still in place as he observed the slender figure crossing the room. How he moves... That barely daunted murmur of power. Mac shook the intruding thoughts off as he rummaged through the refrigerator.

Only he wasn't hungry. He could still hear the water and he went still again, listening, not moving until it shut off. He moved then to wait outside the door.

Methos emerged, dressed in his jeans, loose sweater sliding over his head, surprised to find MacLeod waiting for him.

"Better?" Mac asked.

"Much. I almost feel human," Methos said and studied the Highlander. "Mac? Are you sure you're--"

"I'm fine," the burr was back. "I think it just hit me how close Suru came to having you... having both of us."

"But he didn't. You beat him, Mac," Methos said softly, bringing his hand up to pull MacLeod's mouth against his. This time the passion did flare and Methos met it, Mac pulling away first after a gasp that was closely akin to pain. The older Immortal caught his hand and the fingers tightened on his as Mac refused to meet his eyes.

"I need you," Mac breathed harshly, as if embarrassed to admit that desire. Methos recognized the overflow from a strong Quickening by experience if nothing else.

"You don't even have to ask, Duncan," Methos said, reaching up to lift his lover's chin.

"And I need this," Mac said, swallowing with dismay as he caught the slender wrist, thumb pressed lightly on that same point, a flash of pain crossing the Highlander's face. Methos swallowed and nodded, closing his eyes as that point was pressed gently, barely a brush, meant to bring him to the level Mac was at, rather than the pain Suru had involved by repeated access. It was almost gentle but Methos still could not halt the reaction, however measured. The aching began and he opened his eyes to the coffee dark gaze of his lover.

He wasn't quite prepared for the raw desire in the Highlander's gaze, but he gave into it anyway as MacLeod pressed him to the wall gently, fingers laced tightly through his, mouth warm and firm and searching. A muscled thigh pressed between his legs and rode up, further rousing him to a sudden, throbbing hardness. He felt MacLeod's groin swell and strain under the denim and the Highlander shifted, the bulge in his pants rubbing against Methos' own trapped erection, the pressure pulling a hiss and groan from Methos as Mac's mouth moved from his to nip along his jaw, tongue easing the bites, then a gentle suction along his Adam's apple as Methos swallowed. His wrists were released; MacLeod gripped the back of his neck with one hand, pulling him closer, his other hand sliding between them to apply a firm rhythmic clasp on the older Immortal's groin, fingers flexing and relaxing around the swelling beneath the worn denim until Methos was trembling under the force of trying to hold back the orgasm threatening him.

"Mac... " he warned, fighting for breath, trying to push the younger man back gently; but MacLeod only pressed closer, mouth moving the neckline of his loose sweater aside to bite his shoulder. Methos' knees went weak as the relentless caress across his groin continued and felt his hips began thrusting against the coaxing hand.

"Let go... " Mac murmured, almost a demand, under his ear, hands closing tightly over him once more and Methos arched, protest lost under a curse and a groan, fingers digging into the Highlander's shoulders with bruising force. MacLeod released his grip, shifting his hand to pull the snap back and the zipper down, fingers closing over the hard length of flesh with a grip like steel, just this side of painful.

Methos was unable to think, unable to try and return the touch and feel of his partner's hand. His entire existence had become focused on one aching need. His legs threatened to give way beneath him, only MacLeod's strength holding him as the Highlander leaned in to him, teeth biting again at the joint of his shoulder and neck.

"Gods... " Methos' response was part moan, part cry as MacLeod continued to stroke him then squeezed to halt the flood of sensation, until his partner's breath came in harsh, short pants, the hazel eyes closing as he arched again into the sweet torture of MacLeod's hand.

And suddenly MacLeod was sliding down along his body, pulling his jeans down with force enough to scrape his skin, mouth covering him, slick and fiery, hands bracing his hips as the older Immortal capitulated, unable to hold back either the mindless thrusts or the hot fluid spilling from within him. A wordless moan was torn from him as saliva moistened fingers slid under and between his thighs, his legs parted impatiently as the entry was found and pressed, muscles surrendering to the forced intrusion. His spine stretched trying to pull in two different directions, involuntarily driving him up on his toes to press his cock deeper into the moist, demanding heat of MacLeod's mouth and away from the hard, probing intrusion in his ass. His body shook with the force of his reaction, orgasm ripping through him with a painful intensity. Coherent thought a distant memory. The Highlander gave one last long, hard pull on his heated flesh with mouth and hand and then released him to finish pulling his jeans off, fingers raking the skin of his calves. Methos slid along the wall, weakness sweeping through him in the shuddering aftermath, his sweater riding up as Mac pulled the denim free then reached for the sweater, pulling it off Methos with little care for fabric or his rough handling of his partner.

Still recovering, it took Methos a moment to realize that his partner's urgency was turning to savagery, but the realization came too late as MacLeod shoved him onto his side, unfastening his pants to release his fully engorged cock with a groan and shoving his jeans down.

No! Methos mind denied what was happening even as the Highlander grabbed him, the dark eyes glittering with anticipation and raw lust and violence as he pushed Methos onto his belly. This was Suru, not MacLeod. It may well have been Suru's influence all along and he had been too exhausted to see it. But he could see it now--the waiting, the calmness, the brutality all too familiar. Panic welled up in the elder Immortal as MacLeod finished stripping his shirt off with his knee pressed firmly against Methos' back, pinning him.

"No!" The denial surged out of Methos as he pushed with his arms, levering his body upward, MacLeod almost falling.

"No? You dare say no?" The words were terrifyingly familiar, the blow that caught him along the jaw more familiar still; rattling his skull, threatening to steal his consciousness. This was no Dark Quickening... not exactly. Suru had not hated Methos, only wanted to use him, break him, force the older Immortal to submit. MacLeod didn't want the same things, but his feelings were close enough for the warlord's personality to twist the Highlander's urge to protect into possession, turn desire into domination. The Quickening had brought the harsher, uglier side to the forefront. And MacLeod didn't have the experience to fight it--Suru's intent to exert his will over the ancient the driving force in that last fatal encounter. That mixed with MacLeod's own limited history of bending another to his will had emerged in the only way it could. Methos understood it--recognized it.

Only Methos wasn't sure Mac could forgive himself for another rape. Methos wasn't sure he could forgive MacLeod again.

And Suru's last attempt to subdue Methos had ended with Methos dying in a variety of painful ways.

"Mac!" He said sharply and twisted catching the Highlander's wrists. "Not like this! This isn't you. It's Suru. Fight it! It's the Quickening!"

He continued to call to the Scot, sliding out from under him until MacLeod caught his hair, yanking him back on his knees, then to his feet to slam him brutally against the wall again, face first. His hands caught Methos' wrists, thumbs digging into those pressure points to no avail. Frustrated, Mac jerked his hands behind him and upward, cock pressing against his buttocks seeking a forced entry.

"Oh, God, Mac... please... " Methos said, nearly sobbing, as he braced himself. He couldn't throw the Highlander off, the angle too awkward, the man's strength increased with the bolstering of the Quickening he'd taken. MacLeod leaned forward, catching both wrists in one hand, his weight pinning Methos, his other hand securing a grip on the back of his neck, pressing his face against the wall even as he tried to wrench away from the Highlander.

Methos managed to get one arm free, pressing it against the wall for leverage, then gasped as he took a sharp blow to his kidneys, knees threatening to give out from the pain. MacLeod's arm snaked under his shoulder and up, catching his neck and gripping it, forcing it back, threatening to snap it as his hand clamped down on Methos' other wrist, trapping it against his back. Methos went still. To keep struggling would only enrage MacLeod further and the outcome would be the same--probably even if MacLeod killed him.

I've survived this before, he told himself. Wondering, as he detached himself from the coming assault, if Ikanos had not forever marked him somehow so that others of his kind would know--would want to dominate his body and his will. Again and again, something ineffable about him threatening other men.

It's not Mac, he said to himself, as the heavy body pressed close, concentrating on the pain radiating up his spine and through his shoulders as he closed his eyes again. Trying to force his tense body to relax and to still the shuddering fear creeping into his belly.

He waited. Nothing happened but he could hear MacLeod breathing harshly against his ear, his body tight and hard against Methos' back.

"Mac...?" Methos whispered, felt the grip on his wrist lessen slightly and forced himself not to try and get free. "Mac. It's not you... ," he murmured and heard the Highlander draw in a sharp breath and hold it. "Let it work through you, Duncan," he coaxed gently, this assimilation of other personalities too familiar. The pressure on his neck eased off and he heard MacLeod suck in another harsh, deep breath, the body pulling back as the painful grips on his neck and arm were released.

Methos let himself fall forward, fighting the nausea in his stomach, trying to calm the trembling in his muscles. A low moan behind him pulled his attention from his own distress to MacLeod's.

The Highlander was leaning against the wall, knees drawn up, head down, arms clasped around his knees.

Methos didn't touch him, but he drew close, kneeling next to the shaking body, able to see the strain on the dark face. "Take it in, Mac, " he said, forcing his voice to steady. "Separate yourself from him."

MacLeod nodded, drew another shuddering breath then made himself take a slow, deep inhalation and release it, the rhythm centering him, a kata with air.

It took long minutes and Methos remained still, breathing with him until Mac's dark head came up and Methos dared meet the Highlander's eyes. The earthen depths were calm, soft and apologetic. MacLeod said nothing but extended his hand and Methos gripped it then slipped his fingers between the Highlander's and allowed himself to be carefully and slowly pulled forward until the arms folded around him, gently. An embrace, not a restraint. Comfort, not coercion, as MacLeod buried his head against the older man's shoulder. "I'm sorry... ," he murmured and Methos forgave him quickly. MacLeod had stopped the rape, not him. His lips brushed the younger man's temple as he pulled the muscled body against his own more firmly.

It wasn't worth discussing. Both of them knew the cause. The immediate threat over, Methos pulled MacLeod up and led him to the bed. They lay close, no effort or desire to rouse stronger emotions, and Methos curled himself around the larger man, pulling Mac's arm across his stomach as they lay together. It took a long while for MacLeod to succumb to sleep but Methos knew when it happened, gave his lover a few minutes to make sure he was well and truly asleep and then slipped out of the bed and headed for the bathroom.

He left the light off, crouching in front of the toilet. The reaction he'd been holding at bay came swiftly as he vomited, maintaining as much silence as he could until there were only dry heaves left. He flushed the toilet and got to shaky feet to wash his face, leaning against the basin to let his head clear and his body stop shaking. He felt dizzy and faint, flushed and hot from reaction--nausea not something Immortals had to deal with very often.

He almost jumped out his skin when the door opened and MacLeod stood there watching him. The Highlander turned on the light, forcing them both to blink.

"Mac... "

"I know. Delayed reaction. I'm feeling none too steady myself. Are you all right?" There was only concern in the voice, no recrimination, no self-loathing. Methos understood better than anyone what an adverse reaction to a Quickening could be like--he'd just had more years to get his under control.

"Better," Methos murmured and it was true; the nausea had been replaced by fatigue, the flush cooled by the touch of cold water. Duncan turned the tap on again wiping his own face then getting his partner a glass of water. "Do we need to talk about this?" the older Immortal asked accepting the glass and swallowing gratefully.

"I don't know. We both know what happened." MacLeod murmured, passing a hand over his eyes. He had slipped into a pair of sweats, dark color accentuating the pallor in his face. The episode had shaken MacLeod badly. Methos reached out and lay a hand on his folded arms.

"You stopped it, Mac. I didn't. You know that don't you?"

Leaning against the door frame, MacLeod considered it and nodded. "Yes. I'm not sure how or why, though."

Methos moved to lean against the wood opposite MacLeod, hand still resting lightly on the muscled forearm. "I am and I've told you before--it's not in you, Mac. Not when you're yourself. And Radeen Andres Suru was... he was an extremely powerful personality, Immortal or no."

"I got glimpses... some of what he did... " The dark eyes closed. "Methos, tell me that one of these days I'm going to find out something about your past that doesn't make me sick at my stomach." It was only half jest and Methos knew it.

The distance between them was too great for the comfort they were both seeking and Methos moved in, knowing MacLeod would not for fear of scaring him. That fear had passed and he pressed close, the Highlander's arms uncrossing to slip around his waist and down, hands resting just above his bare buttocks while Methos braced himself against the broad shoulder and doorframe. "Not from other Immortals. In general, Mac, we are a pretty nasty lot. You are... unique... not entirely alone but rare enough. Most of my good memories have to do with mortals, not Immortals. And you won't get them from a Quickening unless you take mine."

"How do you live with this... with... Christ. Maybe Joe was right. Maybe there's only so many we can take," MacLeod said slipping his arms up along the smooth muscles of his lover's back.

"Maybe. I don't know. At the end, though, one of us will have to take them all. No quarter. No choice," Methos said softly and leaned in, pressing his forehead to MacLeod's.

The younger Immortal freed a hand to slide his fingers through his lover's hair, finding some reassurance in the gold-green eyes. "I'm beginning to wonder if the real threat to us is from us... from ourselves," he murmured. "You take them badly. I, it seems, am beginning to. I'm afraid... " He stopped, the fear welling up without the guilt, but fear nonetheless.

"Afraid you won't be able to control it? You will, Mac. You can," Methos said quietly. "Good men do bad things. Bad men occasionally do good things. It happens. And I can help--as you do with me. That was the point, wasn't it?" He said, crooked smile appearing on the face and MacLeod returned it after a moment and bent his head as Methos lifted his, lips brushing gently across the Highlander's as his hand crept to the back of MacLeod's neck. "Just remember this, Highlander. There is nothing, nothing you could do to me that I can't forgive."

Mac's smile faded a bit. "That's a big nothing, love. If I had taken you... "

"I thought it, Mac. For a moment there I wasn't sure I could. But it was fear, not love. Nothing. Up to and including taking my head."

MacLeod studied him, searched the earnest face for a long moment before nodding, then moved his arms and Methos slid into them, body pressed tight and close. Emotional intensity seeking release in a physical form.

The bed called them, but desire had waned and they slipped into sleep pressed tightly together.

Suru had not released MacLeod however, creeping into his dreams... turning them to nightmares... and the Highlander knew it...

... "No? You dare say no?"

... The Methos that was... The warrior, the strategist, reduced to a prisoner. He had refused to counsel the warlord. Radeen Suru's Teacher and Mentor, counselor turned prisoner. Refusing to succumb to the lure of power that Suru offered...

... bound, hands over his head, on his knees... the back bloodied and healing then bloodied again... chest flayed... and consciousness hovered still close... Suru began the rape, taking the lax body brutally, straining already over taxed muscles until the shoulders dislocated and every movement brought pain...

... sobs, the pain ingrained so deep... there was no place to bury it any longer and no escape as he was grabbed by the guard, Suru watching coldly as his prisoner was held down, hips splayed as the assault began again, smiling faintly when a vicious jerk to the side broke the pelvis and the rape continued anyway...

... "End it now," the warlord said. "Plan this conquest for me... " he held up the heavy pole, planting it against the stone of the courtyard... "Impalement is a painful way to die..."

... "No... " A rasp of breath, gold-green eyes shuttered away again as he was forced to his knees, hands bound behind him, slender body filthy and bloodied...

... "Fool... " Suru snarled as the pole's sharpened tip pressed against flesh. "Last chance, Methos."

... No answer until the screams began as the pike tore through flesh and muscle, slid past bone, a gush of blood and waste and then he was lifted, the pole set in its brace, gravity dragging the body downward. Consciousness left quickly... but returned... death was days away... movement making the body slip until the pike emerged from his shoulder... and even then... death came and went in waves until it came and stayed...

... "What do you resist for...?? Tell me... I want to know... " Suru crouched before his prisoner, in front of the emaciated figure slumped against the wall, unable to hold himself upright without that support...

... "Because I can... " Methos grated out, a flash still in the gold-green eyes... "Because unless you take my head, there is nothing I can't survive....and as long as I survive... I win," he murmured and slipped into unconsciousness again...

... Suru studied him, reached out to touch the fevered skin, let the other's presence, strong and sure, wash over him... He could take his head but didn't want to. He had met no one, mortal or Immortal who had not succumbed to his tortures, eventually. Or who had not gone mad... this strength awed him, roused his curiosity... he wanted the secret of that strength... not the strength itself until he understood it. Taking this man's Quickening might well change him and he did not want that change...

... The faint passed... the body stirred and then moaned as he was dragged to the Warlord's body again, whimpering in pain and fear as he was impaled again by flesh, by lust and anger... but he did not break...

MacLeod woke with a strangled sound, throat tight and stomach acid. He felt Methos stir beside him, heard the softly voiced question and could not answer... gorge rising as he lunged out of the bed to the kitchen island, emptying the contents of his stomach into the sink.

Methos was beside him in an instant, strong cool hands rubbing his shoulders and back, dampening a towel. Concerned but calm. "Nightmares?" he asked softly.

MacLeod nodded, leaning over the sink. "About you. About Suru... what he did... did he...? Oh, God , he must have. I don't think I could make that up in my mind."

The older Immortal continued to rub his back and shoulders, his own memories somewhat blurred. The specifics of the tortures during his captivity had faded but he recalled being too weak to kill his student when he made his escape.

But what time had erased for him was terrifyingly immediate for the younger Immortal and Suru had most likely been one of the oldest MacLeod had ever taken. Methos had been able to temper the shared Quickening that had followed Kronos and Silas' deaths but this...

He had no cure for this one... couldn't ease the harsh memories MacLeod carried... couldn't undo his own part in the horror the Highlander was trying to subdue.

The broad shoulders were shaking, silent sobs tearing through MacLeod, through Methos as he moved closer and felt his lover tense and draw away.

"Don't... It.. he could surface again... take over and... I can't be party to that.. not again... ," MacLeod gasped, his whole body shaking in fear and revulsion, self loathing that was no part of his nature.

"Mac. Mac!" Methos snapped, gripping the arms, olivine eyes locking with the tortured brown ones. "You won't! It's not you and it's not his will! Just his memories... they will fade. I swear to you. Look at me. Look at me, Highlander!"

His voice was sharp, commanding, cutting through the panic in his lover's mind. He moved his hands to slide his fingers along the strong jaw, forcing MacLeod to meet his eyes again. "I am not afraid of you, Mac. What Suru was or did means nothing. He was wrong. I used his fear of being overwhelmed because I had to. It's past. He's dead. Quickening or no Quickening, you will not become as he was. You are strong enough to overcome it. The Dark Quickening cannot affect you again--this is one at a time. Suru did not seek the heads of men of his own ilk--he killed good men and they are with you as well. But they did not make him a better man. Nor can he make you what you are not. I was not frightened of you, Duncan, but of what was happening to you. Just as you are frightened when it happens to me," he added softly, strong fingers kneading the younger man's neck, easing the tension. He moved in again, gently trapping his lover against the counter, some of his own tension easing when MacLeod rested his hands hesitantly against his hips.

Methos stretched against him, fitting his body against the tense muscles, letting MacLeod feel his strength and his needs, undaunted by either violence or fear. "Let it go, love," he murmured, pulling the uncertain mouth against his own, coaxing the trembling lips apart with gentle suction and a tender bite before sending the gentle probe of his tongue into the warm depths. He swallowed Mac's near sob, felt an answer build in his chest as he took the fear inside himself and let it pass through again. The fingers on his hips grew firmer, the need for comfort overriding the fear and panic.

Methos stepped back, leading him back to the bed, stopping every few steps to comfort and coax, pushing his own darker thoughts away as he struggled to rebuild the trust between them--to restore MacLeod's trust in himself. His breath caught with pain at the desperation in the responses the Highlander started to release, wondering as he eased the younger man onto the bed if there would ever be a time when his past wouldn't be trying to drive them apart. When the distance of centuries would stop being a wedge between the present and their future.

He gentled the still tight body, pressing the Highlander against the mattress, leaning in to him to smooth the dark curls at his neck, mouth still exploring MacLeod's with a soft, slow deliberateness. He eased his hips onto the mattress next to his lover, sitting beside him, one hand stroking the inside of MacLeod's thigh until the broad hand caught his, dark eyes searching his as he pulled back to study the younger man, a faint smile curving his lips.

"Methos, you don't need to prove anything... ," MacLeod rasped out.

"I'm not trying to, Mac," he said. "Except that there is nowhere and no one I would rather be with... not now... not tomorrow... and if you'd been born a few centuries earlier, I'd have told you this a lot sooner, I expect. If you don't want this, I'll stop but I want you, Highlander. More than the air I breathe," Methos murmured, twisting his hand to lace his fingers with MacLeod's.

"I... I'm almost afraid to want you... " The younger Immortal admitted. "That I might... "

"Rape me? I think it closer to the other way around," Methos chuckled, hazel eyes darkening with desire. "But I won't force it, Mac. You do have to choose, though. If you can't trust yourself then trust me," he said softly, taking their clasped hands and once more stroking the inside of MacLeod's thigh, then bending his head to follow the path with his lips, tracing the path to the very joint of the younger man's hip and groin. Then he shifted, pressing one knee between MacLeod's legs and drawing their hands upward as he hovered over the tight body. "Can you trust me that much, Mac?" he asked his mouth a breath away from MacLeod's.

"Yes." It was a whisper, a shudder coursing through the Highlander's body as he gave up the fear for love. The reward was sweet. Methos' mouth sought his, once more asking the Highlander to yield as he captured his lips, his tongue, the simple force of suction gaining strength as the older Immortal began gently rocking his body against MacLeod's, hands still joined, the darker hand flexing around the slender strong fingers. Holding on like a lifeline.

Methos' other hand came to rest lightly on his lover's chest, thumb seeking a dark nipple through the soft mat of hair, finding it and brushing it repeatedly until it hardened. His mouth moved to pursue the new delight, crouching over the prostrate body almost protectively until he felt MacLeod move, spine curving upward to meet the compelling mouth, a soft moan escaping as attention was turned elsewhere. His hand slid from Methos' as the older man moved again, long fingers stroking his chest with a grating of fingernails along his abdomen, nerve endings coming alive under the coarse caress.

MacLeod was intimately aware of the strength of those hands, their graceful length like a solace and a blessing. He struggled to pull himself upward getting only as far as his elbows before he felt those same strong hands gently pulling his thighs apart as Methos went to his knees between his legs, the strong, graceful curve of his spine a silhouette in the partial light as he caught the thighs again and lifted them until MacLeod's buttocks rested on his knees.

"Methos... " It was a gasp, a denial and a plea, the gold-green eyes catching his for one heated moment in amusement and passion before the dark head ducked down, moist heat suddenly encircling the Highlander's cock and he collapsed back on the bed, arms above his head, looking for something to hold onto as the slow seduction found a purpose and a goal. The soft caress of Methos' lips and tongue enervated tissue, blood racing to answer the call and he felt himself begin to swell, the ache beginning as Methos suckled him in long slow strokes, teeth nipping along the skin.

He felt his skin grow damp, sweat answering the internal heat burning through him. Muscles tensed and relaxed with each studied stroke. His thrusts began without conscious thought, the older man's hands still pressing warmly against his thighs as he matched the rhythm, met the release and swallowed, the motion and suction driving MacLeod higher, forcing the surrender to come quickly.

Methos pulled away, hand stroking still as MacLeod's hips flexed, leaning up and in, mouth descending on the Highlander's again in a searing, meshing of lips and tongues, tastes exchanged almost savagely as the Highlander continued to surrender. The body beneath him shuddering in reaction, Methos felt his own cock rise to a throbbing hardness as the solid muscle of MacLeod's chest brushed his heated flesh, as he gentled the spasms that wracked his lover as the orgasm took him. The sense of power was inevitable but he shunted it aside, concentrating on maintaining the fevered pace he had set, giving his lover no time to think or react to anything but the constant, relentless stimulation he was providing. Having MacLeod helpless had its appeal but he wanted the Highlander to reach past that point, to that point of submission that spoke not of weakness but of uncompromising trust--the only answer to the dark corners of his soul still shadowed by guilt and fear.

MacLeod groaned as the sweet mouth vanished, then again as he arched in a final spasm of capitulation and found his thighs caught by strong arms. He was lifted, held, felt the press of slickened fingers against his backside and he gasped as he was penetrated, coaxed, muscles releasing and then tightening before the intrusion began again. But it was gentle, patient, irresistible as he was filled, bodies joined as irrevocably as their souls.

Methos fought back the growing urgency, the feel of MacLeod's body under his a treasured torment. Their fingers met and caught, Methos letting his head drop back as he drove himself deeper and deeper into his lover, felt the strong body react, arching, trembling, writhing, grace and fluid movement a spectacle for the eyes and heart.

And felt the rise of Duncan's cock against his belly again. He caught the length of flesh, stroking it as his thrusts came faster, a burn starting in his back and he ignored it as he strained against his lover, felt the edge rise to meet him and slipped over, heat spilling from deep within him with each frenzied pulse until he was emptied but not bereft.

He fell forward as they parted, MacLeod catching his shoulders as he rose beside him, soft, full lips seeking his throat as they moved closer, MacLeod hard and ready, guiding Methos' hand to the center of his need and the older man agreed, hands once more oiled as he smoothed the taut flesh but then denied MacLeod release, softening the denial with a kiss before getting to his knees and drawing the Highlander up after him, then turning, bracing his hands against the headboard, with one foot on the floor beside the bed, pulling MacLeod against him, behind him on the bed.

"I... can't... " MacLeod said, resisting the dominance of the position, but Methos would not release his hand, pulling it across his belly and pressing against his chest.

"You can. We can... Trust me, love. Trust us... " he breathed softly twisting to capture his lover's mouth, shifting his hips to rub against the other man's erection. Duncan groaned, his other hand catching and holding the strong jaw before sliding along the broad shoulder and down his back to smooth the muscled flank.

Methos was already aching with the need to feel his lover inside and pulled him closer, covering MacLeod's hand as it slid along his buttocks and between before setting his knee on the bed again and leaning forward. And MacLeod let himself be guided, hands flexing against the narrow hips to steady himself, felt the resistance as he sought entry and then felt Methos press back against him. The older man yielding, covering him, enveloping him not only with his body but with the soft pleasured sigh, speaking with the graceful arch of his back as he sought to deepen their union.

Thought and sensation became tangled as MacLeod began thrusting slowly, hesitantly until Methos moaned in frustration and began driving the rhythm and the force, no longer willing to settle for gentle lovemaking. He rose up, drawing MacLeod's hands to the headboard as well, forcing the straining body close against the arch of his spine. Breath catching at the feel of the sweat slickened flesh sliding against his own. Demanding with love and trust that the Highlander take him in the same manner which had been nearly forced upon him in violence and brutality. Refusing to allow his lover even a moment's taste of the revulsion and self loathing that Suru's influence might have left lingering.

That absolute conviction of faith broke through the last of MacLeod's resistance. Methos was pressed to his skin, his flesh, the strain in his muscles echoed in MacLeod's, every intake of breath filling the Highlander's lungs. Hearts speeded up to pound in sync, bodies merging to become one. The sheen of sweat exchanged between them mingled their scents. Strength offered and accepted and sent back again. Broad, dark hands closed over pale slender ones and Methos barely turned his head, the gold-green eyes glazed with a pleasure and bright with an emotion just this edge of agony and one breath away from ecstasy. "Everything I am, Mac," a bare murmur of promise offered freely, willingly.

Mac groaned, mouth against his lover's throat as he answered, invoking the deity and with three words swore his heart and soul to that promise. He withdrew and then plunged inside Methos again to seal that oath with blood and fire and life, responding to the ragged groan Methos uttered, and then caught the urgency, body driving fast and deep, until Methos sagged against the headboard, choked soft moans punctuating every thrust.

The orgasm, when it came, was ripped from MacLeod like an explosion and he collapsed against his partner bonelessly, both of them breathing roughly, MacLeod shuddering, Methos trembling and clinging to the headboard as if it were the only support he had, trying to still his own heart with deep breaths that kept escaping him.

MacLeod's hand came up to rake through his damp hair carefully as he turned the older Immortal's head, pried his fingers from the bedframe and shifted to the side to kiss him, open mouth covering his lover with a gentle demand. Then he pulled him down, both of them tumbling onto the bed in a tangle of limbs and soft words until they found the common ground of reassurance and forgiveness that eventually led them to dreamless sleep.


Watching the dawn rise was not a new experience. Staring at it through the wide-paned windows of the loft as if it might be the last was.

MacLeod had been watching the light creep through the blackness for over an hour, barely moving, unwilling to disturb the weight or warmth of the body partially covering his. Usually Methos would roll away from him at some point in the night, burrowing his slender frame under whatever blankets he could steal--leaving Mac to wake chilled and annoyingly amused to find he slept the night with a massive slug-form of cotton and down and quilting.

But not this night. Not this morning. Something had changed.

Everything had changed.

Methos' breath warmed his skin, the dark head resting just above his breast, chest pressed against MacLeod's. One arm lay in a loose embrace across his abdomen and waist, the other trapped under the Highlander's neck. His lover lay curled around him protectively as if he and he alone could keep any further darkness from assaulting his mate.

Mate. It fit as no other word had. Defining once more the tangled strings of their relationship. Mated. Not for progeny. Not for domesticity. Certainly not for the modern convention of legality. Matched. Two equal parts.

Wolves mated for life. As did hawks. Predators bound together by something far deeper than survival or instinct or even love.

Because they had no choice.

It would have been easier to think that what he shared with the older Immortal was a direct result of their shared Quickenings. To believe that and that alone had led to the gut wrenching tangle their lives had become. MacLeod didn't believe it. But he wanted to... God help me, I can't lose him... he wanted to.

He was neither wolf nor hawk and if he wanted Methos to survive, losing him was the only choice he could make.

Either that or live with the knowledge that the next Quickening he took--and there would be a next, he knew--might be immediately followed by taking Methos' life.

The vague dreams had been stilled through the rest of the night by his lover's presence, by the warm secure feeling of his strength and his love permeating even the deepest reaches of Mac's mind as he finally laid Suru away. All that vanquished, one thing had remained.

Had not Methos surrendered when he did, stopped resisting the assault, the rape MacLeod's Suru-overlaid personality had begun would have ended with Methos' head cleanly separated from his shoulders.

He turned his head slightly to watch the violet and gold laced sunrise wash over the man sleeping against him. That surrender had stopped the rape--Methos submitting to MacLeod as he had never done nor would have done to Andres Suru. The sudden yielding in the slender body snapping Mac back into his own mind.

"I am all yours, Mac. You know that. You can do anything, have anything you want from me."

"I have all I need. I have your love, your friendship, your trust and most of all you. Here. Now."

All he needed, but not enough still. All their arguments of the last few weeks seemed hopelessly trivial, inconsequential. Fights about risks and dangers, stay or go, together or not. It had all come back to the basic issue of trust, only it too had been altered beyond recognition. It wasn't that Mac couldn't trust Methos, it was that he couldn't trust himself.

His hand came unbidden to his eyes to rub at the burn there, not even trying to deny the tears or the hollow growing ache in his chest. The threat of other Immortals, Methos' not so pretty past--none of it dragged out the depth of fear the Highlander had knowing the greatest threat on the planet to the oldest living Immortal was himself. Methos trusted no one else, would let no one else get close enough to be such a threat.

A bad Quickening, any Quickening, and Methos might find the offer he'd made two years ago under a bridge in Paris taken up.

Or might not. Mac wasn't so devastated by the knowledge that he didn't recognize his own strengths. He might well be able to resist, Methos might be the best cure. But they would only get one mistake in judgment.

Methos would only get one. MacLeod would have to live with the result.

And he was just coward enough not to want to.

A deeper breath pressed Methos closer against him and Mac let his hand slide along the exposed back slowly as his mate stirred. All his concerns and anxieties did nothing to still the wash of desire that flushed through him as the long body moved against his in the sleepy slowness of pre-waking. The arms tightened momentarily, then loosened with a sigh and Mac fought the urge to finish the wake up process with the slow and near desperate lovemaking that exposed and revealed every graceful, sensual, masculine response in his lover and always left him shaking in reaction at the result.

Denied himself, and Methos, because if he allowed that near perfect meshing of bodies and souls to further erase the horror of the previous night's near savagery he would never find the strength to let Methos go.

The decision was made harder as Methos woke, a similar idea in his sleepy mind as his hands began a slow exploration as he became aware of the warm, hard body under his own. Mac allowed the torment for long moments, suffering the press of lips against his breast, the sweep of those long, slender fingers across his thigh and groin until he was trembling. And then stopped him, holding him until Methos woke fully, until he realized it was not some morning playfulness. Tension crept into the lean body, face losing the soft glow of anticipated passion.

There was no easy way to do this. No gentle way to open this chasm.

"We can't stay together," MacLeod said when he was certain Methos was completely intent on him. "I nearly raped you last night and if I had I would have killed you afterward. There's no guarantee that the next Quickening will give us any grace at all. I can't live with this."

You can't take my head but you can cut out my heart, Methos thought but said nothing. He had feared this last night, but Mac had been caught so off guard by the events it had taken just another shove in the opposite direction to get him past the worst of it.

But not all of it.

And there was no argument Methos could make. Not right now. Not when he knew the depth of his own terror at the thought of taking the Highlander's head either deliberately or accidentally. He'd faced it down once during Mac's Dark Quickening. Known the urge again in the aftermath of Suru's death. Faced it down and won--knew he was strong enough to do it again.

Mac didn't have that reassurance. All he had was the fear. Together they could fight off the fear of other Immortals. Of the past. But there was no way for Methos to help Mac fight this one. The Highlander had to overcome it in his own way and in his own time.

His heart was screaming protest. His mind threatening to shut down completely. And his soul...

His soul had waited five thousand years for Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. A few more months or years or centuries weren't going to matter.

"I know," was all he said and moved before Mac could react, pressing the Highlander back and down and covering his mouth with a kiss, parting the lips and savoring the taste of him as if it were a last meal. He pulled back, meeting the dark eyes steadily without chastisement or pleading. "I know," he whispered again. "But someday, Mac. Someday you'll find a way," he murmured and gave him the kiss of Brotherhood, clasping the big hand in his as he touched his lips to either cheek. "And when you do, I'll be waiting."

He pulled away then, knowing Mac had expected a fight or at least an argument. And then he dressed quickly, finding the torn and discarded sweater and putting it on anyway. His other things were still in the truck. He knew Mac was moving, sliding into his own jeans as Methos grabbed up his few belongings.

He expected no words of protest and got none, MacLeod's face set and tight as he held back whatever words would be his undoing. It took Methos only minutes--centuries of quick exits coming into play. Boots on and sword thrust haphazardly into the top of the pack he finally faced MacLeod.

"Ye' know I love ye'?"

"Yes, Mac. I know. I understand."

"Good," a whisper of tortured sound and Methos closed his eyes, unable to bear the stoic pain on the Highlander's face.

"Mac. I won't come back. I'm not saying we won't run into each other. But I won't come back. You will have to ask."

"I know."

"Good."

It was so utterly inadequate and yet there was nothing more either of them could say. Good-bye was not on Methos' agenda and 'keep your head' morbidly inappropriate. Methos nodded once and headed for the outside door, the need to get out as strong as the desire to stay and the idea of being in the elevator too much confinement for what he was feeling.

But he hesitated with the door open, dawn spilling inside the loft, over him, over MacLeod who was not looking at him and Methos took in that vision--wondering if this was what his beloved warrior would look like on the day he took the Prize, bathed in gold and silver light, made to look god-like by the twin burdens of strength and honor.

I'll see it. I'll take on all the gods and fates to see that day... he swore fiercely to himself. He will not face that day without a friend at his side...

That Oath burned brighter than all the rest and he found the smile he needed... the one MacLeod needed. "Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod," he said strongly, sharply and Mac's head jerked up to see the shine in the gold-green eyes and the lips twitching in the familiar cynical grin. "I love you, Highlander. Don't you ever forget that," he said and saw Mac nod slightly at the tone of command, the barest smile touching his dark eyes. "Ever," Methos repeated softly and left quickly before he did try to fight it.

The door closed definitively and MacLeod hung onto the caress/sound of Methos' presence until long after he heard the truck pull out, long after it had faded.

Long after the words had faded from his memory.