Crosses to Bear
by Maygra de Rhema

THIS IS NC-17/ R RATED: SOME THEMES IN THIS PIECE ARE HIGHLY DISTURBING ACCORDING TO MY BETA'S. READABLE, BUT NOT SOFT ISSUES. PLEASE CONSIDER YOUR OWN LIMITS BEFORE READING.

Extreme Violence & Sexual Assault, Torture, Rape, Language, Male/Male Sex. If any of this offends you, do not proceed. Some of the scenes in his piece are graphic in content and implication: Much harsher than its companion pieces so please think before you read.

This makes much more sense if you have read Brotherhood, Harm's Way & With My Shield--but you don't have to...

As always, The Highlander characters: Duncan, Methos, Joe, et al, are the property of Rysher: Panzer/Davis and I am ruthlessly exploiting their characters for no monetary gain and for my own (and now your) enjoyment but I will return them unharmed and no worse for the wear. This material may not be copied or distributed without my permission--I don't want R:P/D hunting me down--I have enough problems. Do not link, publish or post this material without permission.

Much thanks to my beta's: The Goddess Atilla, MacG, Merry G and her Boys, Eng, W.A. Johnston & The Gang {in their never ending permutations} & V. Watts. And Kevin, the True Prince of the Universe, for all encouragement--tongue in cheek or not. Input appreciated, despite all commas and comments; to be sent to Maygra at maygra@bellsouth.net


It was entirely unfair that he should be in such a foul mood and the weather be so unfeelingly glorious.

Such were the broodings of the dour Scot as he stared out the window of the loft. Sunrise had warmed the air an hour or two ago and Seacouver stirred, oblivious to the ripe edge of indecision tearing at one of its oldest citizens.

But not the oldest. Not at the moment, MacLeod thought. Humor twisted his depression despite his best efforts to keep it full and absolute. Depression was so much easier to turn to anger than laughter. Anger was so much the stronger balm for pain and pain was the only thing he could see unless he turned his head just that much to observe the honored elder of the city sprawled less than gracefully across the dark green sheets of the Highlander's bed.

But the pain could be eased into a gentler ache of loss if he could be assured that at some time and place in the future that same elder man would be once again be sprawled artlessly on his bed... or anybody's bed.

Not his first choice.

But a choice without question if that were the bargain made to keep the man alive.

And not the elder's choice either but he would no longer fight with the Highlander on the point. He would... and had... tried to work around it, however. The results of which MacLeod could still feel in the vague aches in the muscles of his back and thighs and, God help him without laughing his jaw. But all of Methos' persuasions had fallen short of overcoming the one glaring flaw in his plans.

Mac moved to the side of the bed, allowing his unique aura of presence to register within the older Immortal's misty realm of pre-waking consciousness before he reached out to touch the smooth warmth of the pale skin. To do anything else would, no doubt, leave Mac with a broken hand in addition to his other pains.

But his presence registered at the appropriate level, the only response to the gentle touch a sigh and deepening of relaxation seemingly impossible to achieve in a body already so limp. The broad dark hand slid across the slight, sharp rise of his lover's shoulder where the crooked arm that nearly obscured the older man's face had forced muscle and bone to define the ivory skin. MacLeod let his fingers travel upward along the slender throat, smiling faintly as Methos moved to nuzzle that hand softly then subsided. The hand traveled further to sort the short silken strands of hair, mussed and slightly dampened from the sweat of sleep to finally rest on the thin white line at the back of the older Immortal's neck.

That glaring flaw. That thin line of damage that robbed MacLeod of his smile and of his joy. A scar that should never have been, would never have been had the revered elder kept to his successful plan of centuries past and stayed the hell out of the Game and away from Duncan MacLeod.

A month at MacLeod's lake cabin while Methos recovered from that injury had found them no closer to agreement on the issue. It had been resolved on a monumental admission of undying love and opened a floodgate of more divisive issues they could not seem to compromise on.

Being in love could be a stone cold bitch at times.

It had neither surprised nor dismayed Methos that MacLeod, having wrenched that admission from the older Immortal in a confusing duel of emotion, accusations, and fear, now stood on the opposite side once more of an argument they kept circling round and round like a never ending drain on their feelings. Methos had planned to leave for Mac's sake, to lessen the target area. And Mac had stopped him. Stopped him with a soul healing admission of love--and had wheeled right round again as the full impact of that now permanent scar hit far too close to home for MacLeod to bear. Now it was Methos who wanted to stay and Mac who was determined to have his friend as far away from his influence as possible. Maddeningly frustrating when they never seemed to be on the same side of the argument at the same time.

Despite Methos' best efforts of the night before--and those were not inconsiderable--MacLeod was not easily seduced away from his decision--literally or figuratively--and so the last frenzied efforts that had so disturbed Mac's linens had been as much good-bye as 'I love you.'

Not that either of them had been willing to express anything so final. Neither was it desperation nor anger that had driven the nights passion's to a level MacLeod was not sure he could survive again with his sanity intact.

Although, he thought, watching his partner stir and move, it might be fun to try...

He almost groaned out loud, his emotions so raggedly out of control he was swinging from despair to hope to desire within the span of seconds. Methos stretched and desire won out without challenge.

The stretch shifted to include the Highlander as the Scot moved in and against the arched body, Methos waking willingly to the firm, sweet, vaguely coffee tasting mouth of his Shield Brother. Arms extending at first to ease still sleeping tendons, shifting readily to slip around and across the bare muscled shoulders of his lover.

"Hi," the sleepy greeting came when their mouths finally recalled they had other duties to perform.

"Morning," Mac murmured, once more clamping down on the sharp edge of desire. He had long since given up the idea that his more than healthy libido was shy of normal. In twelve years with Tessa he had never tired of the joys of her body. His centuries long, on again-off again relationship with Amanda had never been off because of sex., and now, despite the relatively short time since he and Methos had become lovers, he found that same drive triggered by the incredibly appealing sight of a pair of sleepy gold-green eyes and the extremely erotic vision of pale skin just barely wrapped at the hips by forest green sheets.

It made it so much easier to drown out the roar of denial he had been fighting for weeks. He wanted this man where he was or in close proximity. In his bed, in his life, just there... here... the last thought lost again as here became filled with the overwhelmingly immediate presence of his friend and lover. The scent of him, inexplicably linked to the smells of wild and storm tossed shores, of sea and spray and the agelessness of deep shadowed oceans. The need to taste; that faint salt and subtle spice reminding him of cloves and hot summer nights.

And, God help him with mercy this time, the feel of him. Other senses combined to merely echo the brush of smooth skin, paler than moonrise, overlaid by dusky rose hints of color after weeks in the sun at the lake. The long, strong glide of muscles as capable of holding a lover tightly against storms of passion, against fatal falls or of turning their strength outwards and deftly flipping their current target onto his back with a surety which ever startled MacLeod. Proven even as MacLeod admired the sleek lines of his lover's body, the same carefully leashed power sending a thrill through the Scot's more densely compacted frame as he found himself on his back, pinned to the bed by an iron grip and hazel eyes raking in his face and form possessively and a little wildly.

Slug-a-bed Methos might be, but once he was awake, he was most definitely awake.

And slightly dangerous Mac recalled with a thrill of awareness. Emotions once more swinging to the opposite end of the spectrum. The sensual assault of the night before apparently had not been the last foray of their battle. The Highlander, raised proud son of the Chieftain, a warrior trained for battle, was about to be outflanked by a skinny, hawk visaged scholar with the body of a gymnast and the mind of a master strategist.

Duncan's only defense or hope of victory was to rely on the ancient, trite, and cliched stereotype of the people who had bred and raised him. He could be a stubborn Scot.

That resistance daunted Methos not at all as he contemplated the prey now trapped beneath him. A kiss had diverted Mac's attention, the steel grip of Methos' hands around his wrists held him immobile--for now--but his attack was only half planned as he contemplated the dusky skinned warrior staring up at him with an expression of both desire and resignation. To bide his time while he planned out his assault--and to finish shaking the spiderwebs of sleep from his brain--he shifted his position on the bed to one placing him in a less than unassailable position between the heavy muscled thighs of his captive. He cared not at all that MacLeod was garbed in the loose cotton sweats he had donned for his morning run while he, the captor, wore not even the vague protection of MacLeod's designer sheets--that last vestige of clothing lost when he had flipped the Scot onto his back.

An indelicate term for what he was about to do came to mind, vile in its connotation, reviled by every good man on the planet and Methos cared not at all. All things were fair in war. Or in love. And if he had to be labeled traitor to the male of the species to make this conquest. So be it.

Thus fortified with the righteousness of his course he began, stretching his long frame between those hard thighs with a smooth, steady grace and a flexibility that immediately brought a groan to his captive's throat. A slight upward press with his groin and the firming appendage therein attached and the first sign of surrender made itself known in the feel of firming flesh against his own. Mac tried to move his hands but steeled muscle prevented such an obvious tactic as Methos pressed his body more firmly against the Highlander's, moist mouth already attacking the bronzed skin in a series of nips, kisses and slow explorations. Another upward surge and rock and the heavier body began to tense as Methos found a vulnerable spot, the shallow disk of dark rose inadequately protected by the fine mat of dark hair on the Highlander's chest.

One thigh raised--a bid for leverage and the elder strategist countered pulling his prisoner's' arms to his sides and pressing upwards, the arch of his spine driving the contact point between them into a harsh and shattering friction, Mac rising to meet him--the leverage for assault now turned toward a leverage for release. The Highlander's breathing was becoming rapid and shallow, the dark eyes widening under the ruthlessness of his lover's attack. Above him the green-gold eyes seemed possessed of a glittering fire, the slow rock and thrust of the older Immortal's hips against his own robbing Mac of his ability to think or do anything but feel. And when the head dropped to tease his mouth again, MacLeod felt himself surging upward, the barely formed thought of getting out of the suddenly tight sweatpants his only plan.

But he had been well and truly outflanked as the supple body shifted, raised, the long legs moved, parted, knees splaying MacLeod's thighs and bearing down with enough weight to hold him, almost enough weight to be painful, but the balancing act was masterfully done as Methos leaned down, his own ragged breathing an indication of how much he could sacrifice to win his campaign.

"You want me to finish this, Highlander?" he asked softly, head dipping down for a lightning-strike quick application of lips and tongue against MacLeod's throat.

"You'd better or I will," Mac growled and the older Immortal smiled to himself but kept his gaze steady and unyielding.

"If you prefer to finish it alone, I have no objection," he said casually. Oh, but I do, Mac.

"You leave me to finish this alone and I'll never speak to you again," MacLeod threatened and gasped as Methos' shifted once more, one knee moving to press delicately against the cotton sheathed hardness of his cock. A groan was torn from the Highlander, and involuntary toss of the dark head as he was nudged that much closer to orgasm.

"But according to you, I am leaving, should leave... " Methos said silkily, voice hard with irony, eyes harder but not cold. "So get used to handling it alone, Mac," Methos murmured, mouth a breath away from the Highlander's ear, warmth caressing the shell and the bare moist touch of a tongue against the younger Immortal's sensitive flesh.

The dark eyes went wide again, the full lips parted in desire and shock as Methos waited for his answer. The earth brown eyes fixing unerringly on the thin white scar at the base of Methos' throat, twin to the one on the back of his neck.

And then a deep breath, the dark eyes closing. "Then I guess I will. I won't trade your life for sex, Methos," Mac said harshly, eyes opening again to meet the green gold ones. "And I can't believe you thought I would."

"Well, since logic and reason and common sense have failed me, I thought I would give it a shot," Methos said softly, the shading in the hazel eyes changing in defeat as he moved again, this time to release Mac's wrists, to let the Highlander move and in the same instant wrenching the stretched fabric of the sweats down. Mac could neither protest nor argue... the next few seconds lost to him forever as warmth and moist heat surrounded him, engulfed him, loved him to the point of release and beyond, the spasms reawakening the fatigue as he dropped back onto the bed, straining against his lover's mouth until he shuddered to an end. A coolness crossed his heated skin, eliciting an ache of loss, then was only partially restored as Methos eased the fabric back over his groin. Mac opened his eyes to see his lover still kneeling, his own erection looking painful and needy, the slender body trembling slightly from that need and Mac found the strength to move, to tend his lover only to have Methos move away, a slight expression of pain crossing the beloved face as he eased off the bed.

"No," Methos said before Mac could touch him. "It seems I will also have to re-learn how to handle this alone," He murmured and headed toward the bathroom stiffly. The door closing and locking behind him.

Stunned and hurt and completely unprepared Mac could only stare at the closed door, brain barely registering the sound of the shower coming on. The lock would hold for all of ten seconds if Mac wanted in but the fact that Methos had locked it meant he was no longer teasing or jesting or playing games. If MacLeod broke the door down he had better be prepared to admit defeat.

And he wasn't. He fell back, twisting on the bed to bury his face in a pillow and scream in frustration.


Methos' own scream of frustration was lost against the sound of the shower and his own fist as he braced himself under the shockingly cold stream of water he inflicted on himself. It had been, even in his own mind, a desperate and last ditch effort to get Mac to change his mind.

His tangled thoughts became clearer as the throbbing ache of his body eased. It had demanded all of his not so inconsiderable willpower to pull away from that offered touch--to deny himself that much craved pleasure and comfort of the Highlander's physical presence. Hormones under control, he could almost laugh at how completely the Scot had shattered his plan. Perfect irony that the only prick he had managed to tease was his own.

Erection lost to the frigid spill of water, the oldest living Immortal adjusted the spray to a less murderous temperature and still found himself leaning against the black tiles of the stall, face buried against his arms as water cascaded along his back in a soothing caress.

But not the caress he wanted.

It was not a mere matter of proximity. MacLeod could do nothing if Methos chose to stay in Seacouver and he had reason enough even with out his torturous relationship with the Highlander. He was free of the Watchers, had invested a good portion of investment capital into Joe's bar and a had a contract out on a house close by in dire need of renovation.

But that argument had been of no success. If Methos stayed , Mac would leave. MacLeod agreed that Methos had reason enough, possibly more reason than MacLeod to remain in Seacouver, while Mac had few reasons at all any longer. His friendship with Joe perhaps, but the dojo was a loss as a viable business. Mac's wild-eyed impetuous student Richie was off on the motorcross circuit for at least six months and the only people who might have had a hold on the Highlander were either dead or desperately trying to get on with their mortal lives. Tessa's death three years ago had sent Mac to Paris for awhile--long enough for his presence to impact Methos' in a way the eldest Immortal could not have imagined. Since the death of a second friend in Seacouver, that of Charlie DeSalvo whose name graced the dojo's signage, Mac had even less desire to stay. He had remained for Richie and for the brief and fleeting romance with a certain attractive lady doctor. Methos sighed. Another tangle of thwarted love for Mac. Methos would have surrendered the field to the Doctor and to her infant daughter in a heartbeat, knowing the idea of family at least as important to MacLeod as his own identity. But Anne Lindsey, for all her strength in dealing with the sick and the dying, had not the strength to face the reality of living with the undying.

And twisted in and around all this was the cruelest tangle of them all--a vicious knot of fate that had dragged Methos and Duncan MacLeod together again and again, ripped through both their lives in a wake of violence and passion, of friendship and betrayal so that when the so simple concept of love emerged, it had already been tainted by more dark junctures of fate and chance than any two people should have to endure.

The devastation of the Dark Quickening had left Mac's noble spirit bruised and battered... moreso when he had taken by force in his madness, the very man he had to rely on to help guide him out of the darkness. Rape and Murder were not in MacLeod's repertoire--or so he had thought, until it had happened, until he nearly killed his own student save for Joe Dawson's desperate intervention. And just when Methos thought they might have gotten past that aberration of nature, his own past had surfaced to tear their delicate friendship apart--again--and rape had been the least of his crimes, but the one that shocked the Highlander into doubt when the victim had been a friend of his. That and uncountable murders had cast Methos into a different light, a far darker one, and it said much for MacLeod that he had seen through his own disgust at acts millennia past and been able to see the same darkness lurking in himself. Enough to let compassion rule his big heart once more.

Compassion and passion.

A mutual need to release the overflow of energy and violence and sexual need and grief that often followed a powerful Quickening. And they had shared two. Methos had been the reluctant ally in answering that need. Reluctant because the strength of his feelings toward the proud Highland warrior at the time could only be measured against the depth of disgust and betrayal he thought MacLeod felt; a betrayal he had personally and deliberately engineered to keep the Scot out of the line of fire of Kronos' devastating quest for power.

Only to find his assessment of the Highlander's feelings and state of mind once more so far off the mark, Methos had begun to feel he was approaching an Immortal senility of sorts. His own mental instability so blatantly proven, Methos had abandoned centuries of careful and practiced anonymity and all but flung himself into the Highlander's arms and begged to be branded as private property.

He had to smile at his own melodramatic meanderings and lifted his face to the shower to ease the ache in his eyes and the tight clenching of his jaw.. It had not quite been that bad, but Methos had never had any defense against the thrill of being in love. Pain, torture, fear--those he could resist and had, but the subtle lure of companionship, of brotherhood and friendship, of belonging to and with another person had always been a personal weakness. It happened neither frequently nor in large numbers--that capacity limited perhaps by the force in which he forged those bonds. At present he could count less than a half dozen people he would trust with even the smallest fraction of his personality or thoughts. And Duncan MacLeod lead the list by sheer market share.

It wasn't enough. Taking an Immortal lover as powerful as MacLeod and coupling it with the millennia old lure of his own power had begun a summoning of Chance and Fate not seen since the first lizard emerged from the primordial ooze.

Among Immortal ranks, Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod was a power that one either challenged or prayed would never cross your path. Those same ranks still held Methos' five thousand years to be either a myth or a lure so strong it could not be ignored.

Both circumstance made them targets. Being a target meant Methos had fought more challengers in the last three years than he had in the last thousand. Taking on challenges, in Mac's overprotective brain, meant his likelihood of losing Methos grew with each battle the older man was forced to fight.

And Mac didn't think he could live with the loss.

It rankled a bit that the Highlander thought it inevitable that Methos would lose at some point--but only a bit as two other facts bore MacLeod's opinion out. First, that those who chose to come after the oldest living Immortal did so for one reason and honor was not on the list--so challenges aimed at Methos were and had been balanced in the favor of the challenger by whatever method could be devised. Second, that while Methos' skills as a swordsman were vastly and deliberately underrated--winning could be nearly as devastating as losing.

The argument on the bed had been lost by a three inch long line of scar tissue. Methos fingered that scar, swallowing against the wash of memories that had birthed it--of three challengers, of Mac held hostage for Methos' head--of the knowledge that the man who engineered the near coup had been as twisted and sick as anyone Methos had ever encountered and that was saying a lot.

The third time since Methos had met Duncan MacLeod that he had been ready and willing to die--three times in less then three years when the same thought had not crossed his mind once in a millennia.

Too much for a four hundred year old infant warrior to contemplate.

Another death that Duncan MacLeod was not sure his broad proud shoulders were strong enough to bear. Thus far Methos had been unable to find a way to convince Mac that his own shoulders, though less burly, were strong enough to help balance the load.

The water was cooling again and Methos shut it off, leaning against the cold tiles for both clarity and support.

Other issues surged and tangled against this division--too many to sort, too wearing to bear alone. Methos shut down the despair clawing at him. Trite and overly romantic as it sounded, Mac had remade him with his love. It was Methos' duty as his Shield Brother to not deny or try to change how that love was designed or expressed. In six months, a year, or a century, perhaps MacLeod would alter the structure himself--if they had that long. Methos made so few promises, the ones he did were near inviolate. He could not and would not betray MacLeod again.

If he could help it, did not even cross his mind.

The idea of taking the coming separation gracefully did not cross his mind either as he gathered the only defense he had left; an ancient anger that Chance and Fate had once more lied to him for their own amusement.


MacLeod found himself wavering again. This was beyond too much. That locked door had cut him as surely as any blade ever had. He forced himself to move, to dress, to ignore the sound of the water and deny the pounding of his own heart. Partially from the after effects of Methos' devastating lovemaking and half from the sheer force of the panic that now threatened him. It was done. He had won. Methos would leave in a day or so... a week and be out of the reach of those who already knew where to find MacLeod. Vanish back into the anonymity he designed so well.

It was a depressingly hollow victory.

More hollow still when his lover emerged drying the dark silken hair but otherwise unclothed, the convention of clothing in private dispensed with early on as unnecessary.

And provoking. Methos knew it as did MacLeod. That unembarrassed display of the tantalizing body was as much a slap in the face as a reminder of what Mac was giving up. There was far more to their relationship than sex but it was the issue that they had no disagreements on, never had once that course was charted. Nor was it a bargaining tool, despite Methos' earlier ploy. It was, however, a blatant challenge to the Highlander that he was losing more than a willing bed partner. The totality of who Methos was and how comfortably he did fit into the Highlander's life was literally embodied in the ease with which Methos moved through the loft, gathering his clothes and dressing. None of it evocative, the broad back arrow straight as he shrugged into a T-shirt and loose sweater, silently secured his jeans and sat on the edge of the coffee table to don socks and boots. He did so without a word or glance as he gathered other loose bits of his life and shoved them resolutely into the worn back pack and less ancient duffel.

It took Mac a few minutes to realize that Methos was not just readying for the day but that he was packing.

To leave.

They had discussed a few days, possibly weeks. The house needed to be re-marketed even before Methos took possession. Arrangements made to give Joe access to the funds supplied by his once silent and now soon to be absent partner.

To ask Methos what he was doing was to invite a fight Mac wasn't sure he could win again, or wanted to. Pride goeth before a fall, but the Highlander had already fallen. Swallowing his pride wasn't going to make the landing any easier. So he kept his silence, locking what he wanted to say behind a tense jaw and downcast eyes.

"I'll be back later to clear out my locker in the dojo and pick up my other blades," Methos said as he closed and secured the duffel.

"Where will you be?" Mac had to ask... to know.

"I'll send you a bloody postcard," Methos hissed slinging the duffel over his shoulder, hazel eyes narrowing at the set of the Highlander's back.

"Methos." Ah. Pride had a distinctly bitter taste. "I need you to be alive. I need to know it," Mac said softly.

"Well, if I die two fucking continents away, I'll be sure to call before I give up my head," the older Immortal snapped.

That raw rough rage in the older man's tone caught MacLeod off guard and he turned, expression shocked and chastised to see his brother... his friend shaking under an onslaught of emotion that made Mac ache with the desire to ease it. The hazel eyes were sharp and hard and bright, the face flushed. "A dozen times in a lifetime, MacLeod. That's all you get--a few dozen times to know, absolutely know where you are and who you are with is precisely, exactly where you ought to be," Methos said, his voice breaking. "And you can either step up to meet the moment or back away. Ironic," he said, voice losing its edge. "That after five thousand years of backing away; when I finally find the courage--I find the marker has been shifted by a four hundred year old Scotsman who is more of a coward than I am."

It was meant to hurt and it did. Methos' skill as a marksman had not dulled with age or circumstance. Cut all the deeper because it was true.

"Watch your head, MacLeod," Methos added softly and was gone in a rattle of the grate and hum and whir of the elevator.

"I love you, too," MacLeod said quietly into a silence that spanned the entire length of his four hundred years.


To pull back a bit and step into the few shadows that hugged the oldest of the buildings in a young city. Red brick and gray spattered with brown and graffiti as the movement began. Senses stretched taut from practice to feel the lengthened slide and harp string pluck of a remembered signature.

And only the one, eye venturing where presence could not to see the long body, muscles strained with... tension, with anger, as the back of the... terminology near alien... sport utility vehicle.. was yanked open and the awkward bag tossed into the back and a smaller one tossed harder, landing further in.

And to lean, just so, against the protruding metal, the dark head dropping as shoulders convulsed slightly. So much emotion? And for what? A single thread of doubt and then the anger surged again and the hunter was forced to retreat as that shimmering lure was cast wider and like to find him.

"Turn thus," a murmur, rewarded as the slender frame did so to stare blindly up at the building he had just exited. Was certain before... but to see him, so unchanged... was absolute now. And leaving. But for where? No. This was an absolute leaving. Not to be borne. A hunt too predictable was no hunt, but an exercise, and therefore, not a challenge.

{{And the Challenge,}} Teacher, {{is the lesson.}} I remember. {{Do you?}}

So to move without being caught and found... The Teacher was reaching for keys now. Thought and action became one to stop it. No sound as the blade clattered with the keys beyond the curved nose of the vehicle. No cry at all as blood spattered across clothes and the open gate of the truck while the prey twisted, reaching for a blade shoved into the duffel.

{{No blade at hand, Teacher? You have grown soft and careless.}}

But the strength was still there. Easily felt. Addictive as any drug and more potent than any pharmaceutical.

Now a sound. The small hiss of pain as the second blade found home in the small of his back, near the spine--just that much--and movement did the rest. A gasp as the blade moved and the spine... legs going numb from that severance.

{{Not so crude now Teacher. No need to break when you can stand the pain. But the fear of being helpless? This I learned on my own.}}

And still strong. The fear present but he knew fear--had for a very long time and his fingers still curled around the blade, muscles straining to lever the half dead body onto the metal gate and wedge himself against the frame. Protecting his back and eyes scanning for the enemy.

Oh, to be able to appear suddenly in front of him--to materialize in an instant. But he was no court magician. The slow steady stalking of a prey the best that could be managed.

The hush/clamor of presence washed over the injured ancient. That tension preceding all challenges flooding the half-paralyzed body. {{You've added muscle, Teacher. Physical strength to echo the rest. That too can be stolen.}}

Aggregate feelings collided with the swell of another, not so old but tempting in its own strength. {{Ah, this would be the other--The MacLeod}}. Dessert for the planned buffet, but not before the meal and not with it. {{Cursed be the man who can not retake his advantage, so Allah admonishes.}} But to watch, for here is a competent swordsman sliding down those metal steps as if he had wings. And then to pause, to check for the challenger and see none. {{ A man of honor.}}

And then to lunge forward to set his back to the protection of the ancient. {{You have found another Brother, Teacher. Not so vile this one, I think. Not so quick to cast you down as bait for escape.}}

More. The smile growing deeper as the specter watched. The dark tanned hand that pulled the blade free infinitely gentle, as concerned for the ancient's pain as he was his protection--and the ancient as protective to push him away lest another slim blade arrow through the Shield partner's heart.

{{Then let us see. This Challenge teaches me much.}}


Methos strained every sense to catch another echo of the Immortal signature--not so mindless a task when he had sensed nothing before and MacLeod, the idiot, was standing dead center as target.

The presence came to him, and deliberately, he knew. His legs were useless but not so every other muscle above his waist and he lunged, long strong fingers clutching at the Scot's sword arm to shove and propel, his own body following as they both went down. He off the edge of the tailgate and MacLeod because he twisted to catch him.

The blade buried itself in the rubber seal of the gate prop and quivered not at all--the same level as Mac's throat had occupied a moment before.

Mac was wise enough to know they were too open, too vulnerable to an enemy they couldn't see. One arm hooked under Methos' shoulder, this time regardless of causing additional pain, oblivious to the blood slicked grasp of the older Immortal on his arm. He dragged him back, along the line of the truck to the front and gauged the distance between the truck and the door. One strong heave and he had his friend over his shoulder, the unprotected back the best protection for both of them should another blade sing through the air at them--a use of the term Shield Brother as something quite literal.

And unnecessary after all as Mac kicked the door open and entered, then secured it again.

"It's gone," Methos gasped, more from his position over the Scot's brawny shoulder than from pain. "The signature's gone." Steadier as MacLeod gentled him to the floor to prop his back against the wall.

The unnecessary "Stay here," was nonetheless supplied as the Highlander slid to the door again and edged out.

"Mac, you're being a fool!" Methos snapped and moved, the tingle in his legs signaling the return of feeling and movement.

"Shut up," MacLeod snarled. Anger burning bright, not at his lover, but shunted there anyway. Lover. Ex-lover. Could have been and permanently. That protective instinct bred in the Highlands four centuries earlier rose up with all the vengeful fury of a god.

Methos' protest went unheard or ignored as the Highlander came out boldly, moving quickly along the building, his own senses alert to the veriest trace of another Immortal. Methos' presence burned behind him, familiar and strong but that was all. There was nothing and no one else to be sensed.

He returned, pausing at the truck to retrieve keys and the three slim blades before entering the dojo to find the older Immortal nearly on his feet. Methos' arms straining as he clung to the door and railing, almost losing his grip as MacLeod pushed through the door again.

The bronzed arm reached out once more to catch him, pulling Methos securely against him as the adrenaline eased out of the Highlander's system.

"Who was it?" MacLeod demanded.

"I don't know. I didn't see them. Someone... old."

"As in, how old?" Mac asked the dark eyes glittering.

"Older than a wet behind the ears Scotsman!" Methos snapped back. "What the hell did you think you were doing? Even boy scouts know to get out of the line of fire!" The older Immortal was shaking with anger and reaction, the bloodied hand clutching at Mac's forearm with all the strength of a pit bull. His legs were moving but still not bearing his weight and he was caught between Mac's arm and the rail along the wall.

Without a word, MacLeod shifted him backward, setting the narrow shoulders against the wall as he checked for any other injuries. A scrape along one cheek where Methos had hit the pavement, already healing, only the road dirt remaining. The bloodied hand also healed and Mac just as suddenly pulled Methos against him and lifted his shirt so he could see the deep but healing wound in his back.

MacLeod was patently ignoring his anger, Methos decided as he was jostled and handled like a piece of produce being checked for bruises. Anger and fear were still working through him and he got both hands against the Highlander's chest and shoved him away, the motion propelling him back against the wall where he clung to the rail to hold himself upright.

Only Mac's expression as he glared at him was not one of anger but of gut wrenching fear. It registered at that moment how Methos had survived the last five minutes of his life and what must have happened. That MacLeod would have been watching him leave through the window and seen him go down--all of the Highlander's worst fears brought to a shocking reality in a few near-fatal moments.

The dark eyes weren't bright with anger, they were damn near luminescent with unshed tears. So much for the concept of a stoic Scot.

The older Immortal's anger bled out of him as easily as the blood had streamed from his wounds. He raised one hand, a thank you and apology on his lips, emotional strength leaving him as the physical returned and he found his legs more or less steady. MacLeod caught the hand, dark fingers stained darker still with dried blood, threaded through more slender ones. A single pull and Methos traded the solid support of the wall for a different kind of support, mouth opened under the near brutal assault of the Highlander's lips and then offering the strength of his arms and body to the Scot when the kiss became more than desperate.

Mac pulled away first, slowly, sliding down Methos' arm to capture his wrists and hold them, the older Immortal watching him carefully. But Mac seemed steady enough--not ready to talk yet, but more in control of himself. "You need to shower and change, " MacLeod said calmly, the pragmatist emerging. "I'll get your bag out of the truck and meet you upstairs."

Methos nodded, hazel eyes still intent on his lover's face, the question obvious.

"In a bit. I'll be fine in a bit," Mac said and pressed his thumbs gently against Methos' wrists in reassurance only to have the older Immortal suddenly twist and gasp.

Mac reached for him, fearing some injury he had missed but Methos shook his head, glad again of his penchant for loose sweaters. That touch had been unexpected and unguarded against. It had happened before--better for Mac to get his things and let Methos deal with the sudden unbidden erection he was experiencing so they could talk.

"A twinge. Last of the healing... " Methos murmured and leaned in without pressing his body against Mac's to kiss him. "I'm okay. I'll be in the shower," he said and Mac nodded as Methos made his way toward the elevator without further twinges.

The second cold shower of the day (and in less than an hour) was not the best way to put the oldest living Immortal in a receptive mood but he managed it. And he had already decided against trying to re-open the morning's argument. It was unfair and Mac deserved better for his rescue than the complaints of his lover.

The Highlander's presence registered and Methos tensed for a brief second before recognizing it. Some where during his relationship with Mac he had stopped taking his sword everywhere--including the shower. It was time to rectify his laziness before it got one of them killed.

He toweled off quickly, not surprised when Mac opened the door to hand him clean clothes, but a little concerned when the Highlander said nothing and left him. Methos knew the incident in the street had done nothing to change Mac's mind when he emerged from the bath to find that Mac had brought up only his sword and small pack.

The man himself was leaning against the kitchen island, as still as granite--the three small knives spread out in front of him, two still bearing dark stains. He glanced at Methos and then at the blades and Methos moved to join him, hazel eyes scanning the deadly daggers and then shaking his head. "I don't know them, Mac, and I don't know anyone who uses them with such accuracy."

"You're sure?" MacLeod asked and Methos felt his mouth tighten, closing his eyes briefly against the doubt and the fear.

"Yes. I'm sure," he said evenly, meeting the dark eyes steadily. "The signature was old, Mac. I don't get names and faces attached with anyone but you."

"I'll check with Joe and see if anyone new is in town," MacLeod said. "If you'll tell me... if you let me know where you are staying, I'll let you know what I find out."

"Mac, don't make this harder than it needs to be," Methos said gently, laying a hand on his shoulder.

The Highlander nodded but remained silent and Methos sighed to himself and dropped his hand, turning away to shove his bloody clothes into his pack then stopped. He couldn't do it. His leaving this quickly was tearing at the Highlander like a sword thrust.

MacLeod was going to resist even harder now. Torn as he was between Methos' safety and wanting them to be together, he would choose safety first.

Methos was tired of being safe. He would much rather be loved. He would rather set his back to MacLeod's and take on all comers than walk away. He doubted they would last forever together and he had no intention of moving into the loft, but to stay in Seacouver... he had planned that all along. And if Mac decided to take off he would give him time and then follow.

MacLeod's back was still to him and he smiled a little at the muscled form, noticing the tension, the set of the other man's shoulders.

And should the field still stay barren Methos would much rather part in love than in anger he realized, stripping off his shirt and his jeans quietly before moving silently toward the Highlander and slipping his hands over the rock hard shoulders again.

"I'm all right, Methos," Duncan said evenly. "I just... this is harder than I ever imagined."

"Then maybe you'll like this idea better," Methos said with a trace of a smile in his voice and MacLeod turned. The dark eyes went a little wide at the sight of the nude body in front of him but Methos' boldness prompted a faint smile. "I stick around and we take it one day... or one night... at a time."

"Odd timing for another seduction," MacLeod murmured, reaching out to lay his hand on the older Immortal's chest, stroking the smooth skin.

"Not a seduction, Mac. A compromise. A promise. You watch my back. I'll watch yours."

"That sounds simple," Duncan said expression unchanging.

"It is. I don't want to leave. You don't want me to leave. We're making a problem out of nothing."

The expression turned serious again. "Not nothing. This wasn't the last--just the latest."

"No. But they'll find me eventually and they already know where to find you. Maybe between the two of us we can make them wish they'd never looked," Methos said softly catching the hand. "That's the plan."

"Not very elaborate."

"The best ones aren't." Methos said and pulled him closer. "We can work out the details later," he said huskily as MacLeod's hands caught his face.

The kiss was hesitant, almost shy, a light brushing of Mac's lips across his own. Methos let the Highlander set the pace... let the younger man sort out his thoughts and feelings in his own way. MacLeod's fingertips brushed over his lips parting them gently, the bare space of a whisper between their lips before the fingers moved to trail along his jaw, then his cheeks. Feathered grazes soothed his skin as MacLeod's mouth came down again, a little more forcefully this time, tongue sliding along Methos' lower lip before entering, seeking the older Immortal's. Methos met him, gently, sweetly and delicately, his own hands resting on MacLeod's lower back as he tilted his head to deepen the exploration, the kiss. Pressed more firmly against the Highlander as a hand swept down his back, splayed fingers stopping to rest at the shallow curve above his hips and pull him forward.

And MacLeod drew back, putting some distance between them, dark eyes refusing to meet his as he struggled to calm his ragged breathing.

"Mac...?"

The Highlander shook his head. "I have to think about this. Not about this... " he said with a ghost of a smile. "But the rest... stay or go... "

The hazel eyes searched his face then the older Immortal nodded, stepping back. "Got it... Look, I'm going to Joe's," he said evenly, turning away and picking up his clothes from the bed to dress.

MacLeod watched him, couldn't tear his eyes away as Methos slipped back into his jeans. Almost afraid if he blinked, the older Immortal would vanish. A heartbeat. A heartbeat between what had happened in the street and what could have happened. Stark fear had overridden every other thought in that moment and now the moment was past. Methos was safe--for now. All MacLeod wanted to do was memorize every inch and nuance of his lover--every frustrating, fleeting moment of love and desire and friendship. The flex of Methos' back and shoulders moved the blood in the Highlander's veins away from fear again. The stark profile of his face both comforting and disquieting. Methos caught him looking as he sat down to pull on his socks and boots, meeting the frank regard without revealing anything except the faint upturn of his lips, eyes crinkled slightly as the corners when the smile reached that far. The hazel eyes asked for nothing and gave him no indication of the older man's mood.

It was frustrating when MacLeod knew everything he felt was blatantly obvious on his own face. "I hate it when you do that," he muttered.

"Do what? Get dressed?" Methos asked with a chuckle.

"No. Become the inscrutable Oldest Living Immortal."

"Can't help it, Mac. Comes with the territory." He reached for his T-shirt and pulled it on, grabbing up his coat as he got to his feet.

"Methos... love... " the last was said softly, a murmur, indecision and longing on the strong features.

MacLeod didn't move as Methos drew near. "I'm not leaving, MacLeod," he said adamantly, reaching up to brush his thumb across the younger man's lips. "Not until we've talked again. I need you to be okay with what we decide. Understand?"

MacLeod nodded, recognizing as Methos did that the promise didn't come from the oldest living Immortal but from a man remade after centuries of solitude. He caught the hand, wrapping his fingers around the slender palm and squeezed it tenderly. "You'll come back here?"

"In a few hours," Methos said and pulled his hand gently away, heading for the elevator and down.

MacLeod waited until he heard the elevator stop, until the well-known feel/murmur of Methos faded from his senses before he moved. He made a conscious effort not to chase after the man, to shadow him like some unwanted bodyguard. Once caught, he doubted Methos would be caught off guard again and they could not stop living from fear of challenge or ambush. Nonetheless he found himself at the window again, watching tensely until Methos got into his truck and pulled away without incident. Alone and unobserved, MacLeod gave into the violent tremors that had been threatening him from the moment he saw the older man go to his knees. His hands reached automatically for the MacAllan and he poured a short shot, tasting it slowly and letting the alcohol warm his mouth and throat before settling into his belly.

The deadly game in the street had brought all the Highlander's fears for his friend into sharp focus. The idea that he might lose Methos no matter what choice he made rang hollowly in his heart. Lose him to distance if the man left the city, returned to Paris or to London. Might lose him permanently since there was no really safe place for the oldest Immortal now that he was less than a myth.

Methos was not his student. Nor was he a mortal that MacLeod could justify extending his protection over. The older man had made it clear from the moment he re-entered the game that he would not allow MacLeod to fight his battles for him.

The very thought that he might hear of Methos' defeat from a distance opened a gaping maw in his soul. To find out about it after the fact was more than he could take... more than he was willing to sacrifice... he couldn't keep the older Immortal chained to his side, although the idea had some appeal and he chuckled at the thought. That his sense of humor had returned said much about his frame of mind... about the decision he'd just made. There might come a time when Methos would leave... give into the wanderlust that had allowed him to track over the planet a dozen time in five millennia... but that was a choice he could make for it's own sake, not a decision forced on either of them because of a threat to one or the other of them.

It was as simple as Methos had said. Together, they would make other Immortals think twice about a challenge to either... knowing the survivor might well be the last challenge they ever faced. Together they were stronger than they were separately.

Love.

He had forgotten the strength of that emotion, what it could do, how it could change things or make easier to bear what could not be changed. He had torn Methos apart to make him see that strength and then forgotten it again... taken it for granted.

Not again. Never again, he realized and snagged his coat as he headed out the door... it was a beautiful day and better scotch and the best companions in the world waited for him at Joe's. Foolish of him to sit at home alone when his whole world was elsewhere.


It was early yet, not quite lunch and Joe's was quiet, the regular lunch patrons not due for another hour or so, a few early patrons nursing single drinks or settled in with coffee to read the paper. But a bar was a bar was a bar and Joe Dawson looked up with a ready grin as the door opened. The grin widened more when he recognized his new partner.

"Well, well, well, Adam. I thought you were heading out of town," he commented as Methos shrugged out of his coat and stored it under the bar, flipping the fabric in a precise fold not to save the lines of the coat but to give him easier access to the blade concealed in the thick fabric.

"Plans change,... " Methos said with small smile. "Besides I think I promised to cook the books this month."

"Careful how loud you say that, buddy," Joe chuckled. "IRS office is down the street and they like the blues... "

"Ah yes, taxes... guess I'll have to take a course at the university,": Methos returned with a smile, leaning his long frame against the bar.

"Do you plan on being here that long?"

"I don't know," Methos said, the humor slipping somewhat as he picked up a bar rag and began wiping the counter.

"Waffling again? Based on what? No... on Mac?" Joe questioned and then fell silent, alert to the tight lines of tension in the older Immortal's long frame. "Something happened."

"I was on my way out... somebody decided to use me for target practice in the street. Somebody old," Methos said softly. "Know anyone like that in town right now, Joe?"

That Methos should ask surprised Joe and made him even more concerned. MacLeod was more likely to be the one asking for information. That Methos should meant the encounter had shaken the older Immortal far more than he wanted to admit. His gray eyes sought the thin white scar at the base of his friend's throat, accented and highlighted by the white T-shirt he wore under the loose sweater. A scar Dawson was shocked to see every time. Immortals didn't get scars. Weren't supposed to. Methos, unfortunately, had a nasty habit of proving most of what the Watchers knew about Immortals wrong--or at least only partially true. A habit he shared with his erstwhile...

Joe had to stop. Friend? Roommate? Companion? Lover? Defining the relationship between the world's oldest living Immortal and possibly the world's most powerful Immortal had become something of an errant pastime of late. Lovers? Certainly. Companions? Frequently. Roommates? Sometimes. Friends? Absolutely. There were so many layers to the relationship between Duncan MacLeod and Methos, you needed a scorecard to keep up with the two of them.

And the latest permutation, that of lovers, had finally settled into Joe Dawson's not so narrow mind. A not so inconceivable progression of the connection that existed between the two men almost from their first meeting.

It credited Joe's ability as an observer of human nature that he had been aware of the more intimate nature of their relationship before either had said anything to him and kept it to himself until an opportune moment came up to confirm what in truth, had only been a rather strong suspicion. On confirmation he had still been slightly surprised and unsure how he felt about the situation.

There was no disapproval in his soul for the relationship. Living forever had some major downsides. Such as loneliness. Solitude. Constant adjustment to change. Not so different from other humans but spread out over so much more time and distance. Joe fully intended to have had his fill of all three by the time his number came up. What made any of it bearable, no matter how long you lived, was the companionship and joy you found on the journey. Living for four hundred years meant you cherished your joys more wholly for their rarity. Living for five thousand meant you left more companions behind than you could remember.

He let his eyes slide over to his partner: Methos was pulling a cup of coffee from the brewer, rather than his customary beer. Dark hair and sharply planed face, prominent nose and clear hazel eyes, all frozen in time at the average age of thirty--sometimes less, sometimes more. Sometimes so ageless it seemed that time flowed around him, and other times as if he carried each one of those years balanced precariously on the strong, slender shoulders.

Joe couldn't begrudge or judge either man for seeking a relationship that might... just might... survive more than a single mortal life span. But only if they survived. And survival, no matter how powerful the two men might be, was by no means a sure bet.

So Joe had to ask. "I can check. So until then?"

"I'm sticking around," Methos said and there was some restored humor in the gold green eyes.

"Is this smart?"

"It's a plan," Methos said with a chuckle, surrendering his anxiety. "It's not like I sent out change of address cards, Joe," He added, regarding the aging watcher with tolerant amusement and affection. "Although sometimes I wonder if MacLeod doesn't send out engraved invitations on a regular basis."

"They do seem to flock... " Joe admitted.

"Only I'm not sure this one was after Mac," Methos said, closing his eyes briefly to try and commit that signature to memory. He wanted to know it if he felt it again.

"There are some new faces in town but I don't have the details," Joe said. "You tend bar and I'll take a look."

Methos shook his head. "It'll hold Joe. I know that if there was anyone particularly nasty in town, you would already know the details," he said grinning again at the Watcher's scowling face. "Come on, Joe! I've known you too long and I know that no matter what oaths you took," his voice dropped to a lower tone. "You're as much Mac's Shield Brother as I am," he said, the hazel eyes softening at the flush in the ruddy face.

"Not quite as much," Joe said gruffly, arching one eyebrow,

Methos chuckled. "Its not a requirement, you know. Just a rather... nice... "

"Fringe benefit?" Joe asked. "Thanks. I'd rather have two weeks vacation."

The flat tone of Joe's answer set off a rumble of laughter as the older Immortal headed for the office to see if he could manage to squeeze a profit out of the bar and then stopped as another rumble along his senses began. Joe was alert to his partner's stance, steely gray eyes shifting inexorably to the door as it opened and admitting two men.

"Invitations with damned alternate addresses..., " Methos muttered, loud enough for Joe to hear as the two Immortals became aware of another of their kind. Methos felt some of the tension leave him as he realized neither man, nor even the two combined, equaled the strength of the signature he had felt earlier.

The elder looking of the two--one could never tell with Immortals--scanned his gaze around the near empty bar before it settled on the two men behind it. And then scanned once more to fix on the younger looking, more slender of the two.

"Of all the gin joints, in all the world." The man began, striding forward with a disarming smile until he reached the bar -- the heavy oak securely separating host from visitor.

"Oh, please," Methos said. "I'd rather fight you than listen to bad clichés..., " he kept his voice low, aware Joe was watching from the opposite end of the bar. "Of course, I'd rather dispense with both."

"Terrance Nicholas," the man introduced himself. "This is Scott Jarrod," he added introducing his companion.

"Charmed. Get you boys a beer?"

"We're looking for someone. Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod," Nicholas said. "Would you be him?"

Joe's laugh gave Nicholas his answer.

"This is a bar, not the public library. Can't help you," Methos said. "Personal or do you just routinely check the bars for Immortals?"

"I heard he comes to a place called Joe's. This is the third--"

"Then maybe we should change the name of the bar," Joe said. "Drinking or just passing through?"

"Information. I'm looking for--"

"Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod... yeah, yeah, I know... " Joe said. "Well, he's not here. I'm not his social secretary, and if you're not drinking, you're walking. I have a business to run," Joe said putting as much weary annoyance as he could summon into his voice.

"I didn't catch your name?" Nicholas said looking back at Methos.

"You didn't ask. Your manners are execrable," Methos said. "Adam Pierson."

"Well, then, Adam Pierson, perhaps you would care to join us for a drink... or a walk," Nicholas said.

Methos leaned close, voice dropping to a soft whisper. "Are you challenging me? Both of you?"

"Now that is not allowed. Scott can stay. Have a beer while we discuss any mutual friends we may have in common."

"It would be a short conversation, I think," Methos said with a smile.

"Confident of that are you?"

Joe watched the exchange anxiously. Methos was deliberately provoking the man. Not his usual style. "Are you bored or did your evil twin show up for work today?" He asked dryly, Well aware Nicholas was watching the two of them with a trace of confusion. Let him wonder..

"Sorry, Joe. Just passing the time," Methos said, unrepentant. "I should be done in about four hours," he said to Nicholas. "Maybe we can continue this sparkling conversation then?"

"I'd rather take care of it now," Nicholas said, his hand reaching inside his coat and Methos inclined his head. "And then we can wait for MacLeod to show up."

"Take it outside," Joe warned softly, all appearances to the other patrons of the bar of a genial conversation between the two proprietors and the two patrons. "Better yet, take it on the road," he said. "This town is not amenable to Hunters... environmental activists, don't cha' know?"

Beside him Dawson could feel the tension radiating off Methos like a frigid wave of ice. His sword was hidden behind the bar, inches from his fingers but he kept both hands on the smooth wood surface.

"We'll only wait for him outside," the older of the two said with a sour smile.

"I think not," Dawson said matching the grin with his own but the dark gray of his eyes was as uninviting as an approaching storm from sea.

"Plan to walk him home?"

"No. I have a .38 pointed at your gut, you son of a bitch. I think you're trying to rob my bar."

Mortal eyes met Immortal with no yielding of the former and Methos fought back a feral grin. There was nothing quite like having a partner.

Or two, he added to himself as another signature introduced itself to the mix--this one Methos did surely recognize. And if Mac had come here... the mood swing Methos experienced sent enough endorphins to his brain to keep him on an emotional high for weeks.

The sudden change in his co-owner's expression gave Joe a heads up before MacLeod ever slid his muscular frame through the door.

"I'm gonna' start charging rental," Joe said in disgust. "And I mean it, Adam. Take it outside."

"Did you decide to have a party and not invite me?" MacLeod said, approaching the quartet, dark eyes stormy as he eyed the two newcomers. A glance at his lover assured him that these were not the architects of the morning's excitement, and he, like Methos, relaxed slightly.

The still stressed trace of his Highland accent paved the introductions.

"And you came looking for me?" He asked of Nicholas. "Do we know each other?"

"By reputation," Nicholas said. "Yours, not mine. Although we once had a mutual friend.. Or rather an Acquaintance. I don't know that Morgan E'staing was ever anyone's friend."

"Not one of mine, certainly," MacLeod said softly. "And this? This is for vengeance?"

"No this is for curiosity," Nicholas said. "It needn't even be to... the end," he added more softly, cognizant of the other patrons in the bar.

"I don't fight for fun... "

"But you could, MacLeod. This once," Methos said and the Highlander stared at the oldest living Immortal as if he had lost his mind... which he might have given the expression on his face and the very disconcerting gleam in his eye. "A spar... What say, Jarrod?" he asked turning his attention to the younger of the pair. "A friendly bout? Since they've come all this way?" he turned his best pleading grin on the Highlander and it was all MacLeod could do not to roll his eyes and groan. Less than an hour ago his partner had been recovering from an ambush and trying to salvage their relationship. Now he was eager to trade blows with strangers using sharp pointy objects. One of them had obviously stepped thorough the looking glass into La La Land.

And it wasn't the Scot.

"You're his student?" Nicholas asked, glancing from Methos to MacLeod.

"Occasionally," Mac said, crossing his arms over his chest and tilting his head to stare at his friend, wondering what imp had climbed into the hazel eyes.

"A spar then. MacLeod?" Nicholas asked.

"Spar only," Mac said, too well aware how quickly such a duel could turn deadly, and how unlikely it was that Nicholas would be content with only a practice bout. "But just a moment," he added with a smile and stormed behind the bar to grab Methos' arm and fairly jerk him toward the end of the bar. "Have you completely lost your mind?" He hissed softly.

"No," Methos said confidently. "I just know an opportunity when I see one. Mac, Nicholas came looking for you because of your reputation. Putting you in your grave can only enhance his. But you also have a reputation for letting fools go--given a choice. He risks nothing. Or very little."

"And your point?"

"That in fighting me he has nothing to gain, but we do. Back to back, Highlander," he said quietly, hazel eyes meeting brown ones not with mischief but with trust. "Remember: they already know where to find you, so between the two of us let's make them wish they'd never looked--and hope they'll spread the word."

It was a humbling thought to have fallen in love with the truly wicked, MacLeod discovered. Even as one part of his brain protested that Nicholas and even Jarrod were unknown quantities, there were ways to ensure the "spar" became no more--no matter how far Methos planned to press the point. For it to work, all four of them need to emerge alive.

"And if it turns ugly?" Mac asked softly and watched the hazel eyes slide to the confused bartender. "Referee?"

"If he's willing. Which he probably is since he's already threatened to send Nicholas to the city morgue."

"This is insane," Mac said and then let a smile escape. "But clever."

Methos grinned swept his arm out in a courtly gesture. "I follow your lead, teacher mine, " he said and his emphasis on the possessive almost broke Mac out of the serious face he was trying to present.

"Traditional timing for duels is sunrise, but I don't suppose you want to wait that long," MacLeod said leaning against the bar, dark eyes locked with Nicholas'. "So, shall we keep it civilized and say around five o'clock, Cardis Park? The winners buy the losers dinner."

Not what Nicholas had expected but the offer was made grudgingly by the man he'd come to fight, and while not strictly in the rules of the Game, Nicholas, at least, was old enough to know the rules and etiquette of dueling. He inclined his head in agreement and got directions and then left with his companion in tow.

"You are going to explain what just happened here aren't you?" Joe asked emulating MacLeod in his lean against the bar save Dawson put considerably more weight on his arms. The tense moments had settled themselves quite forcibly in his back which always translated to his legs making the extremely expensive and carefully fitted prostheses hurt like a son of a bitch.

"The duel honorable, Joe," Methos said. "First blood."

"Uh huh. And if first blood includes taking your head, what then?" Dawson asked although in truth he was not that worried. MacLeod was very likely one of the best swordsman to enter the Game and if Nicholas had been anywhere near MacLeod's class, Joe would have heard about it. And Methos... Joe had his own opinions about the older Immortal's abilities which he wisely kept to himself.

"It won't," MacLeod said and turned on the smile that had weakened the resolve of women everywhere and sent chills down the spine of stronger men than Joe Dawson. "Every good duel needs a referee."

"Oh no, " Dawson said.

"You don't have to do anything, Joe," Methos said. "You are just a reminder to play fair."

"And what are you two going to do?"

The knowing look on Methos' sharp planed features chilled Joe's soul even more than MacLeod's smile.

"We, are going to scare the bee-jeezus out of them," Methos said confidently.

Persuasion lasted longer than it should have if only because Dawson wanted to see just how many favors he could wrangle out of the two Immortals and in the end he felt he had a fair deal. By then it was lunch time and Joe turned his attention to patrons, staff, and the running of the bar while Methos once more headed for the small office to do what he could to make money on his investment.

"You're following me, Mac," he commented as the Highlander did indeed follow him to the small room behind the bar's smaller kitchen. "Did you come here for a reason or has that Highland bloodline finally emerged to be a 'Methos is in trouble' alert?"

The last was said with a chuckle as the elder man unlocked the office door, the chuckle dying a natural death as the Highlander entered behind him and took up a perch on the battered desk while his partner booted up Joe's ancient but serviceable computer.

"Were you going to challenge Nicholas?" He asked.

"It crossed my mind."

"For my sake."

"No," Methos said, meeting the brown eyed gaze. "Because he is a jerk and deserves to be trounced in full view of his student. Besides, Joe had it near settled before you came in."

The dark eyes never left his face.

"I was not rushing head long into idiocy, Mac," Methos said with a pained sigh. "That is strictly your department."

"As long as we understand that," MacLeod said with a straight face and Methos glanced at him sharply. "Ask me again."

"Ask you what?

"Why I came here."

"Okay, I'll bite. Why did you come to the bar, Mac?" Methos asked, fighting the grin threatening to shatter the mask of the inscrutable old Immortal.

"To invite you to dinner--which I can't now. But I'll take a rain check."

"Fair enough. When?"

"Every night for the next six months. Option to extend after warranty," Mac said his own mouth twitching.

"You're sure about this?" Methos asked, half of him wanting to grin like the proverbial idiot and the other half quailing in the face of making this commitment one of time as much as heart.

No," Mac said and Methos lost the urge to smile. "But, I was miserable when I was unsure and you were leaving. I am much less miserable being unsure and having you around," the Highlander said, the simple honesty all the assurance Methos needed.

"We could just not show up tonight. Let Nicholas win by default and brand us both cowards," the older Immortal said.

"Nope. There's only one person on the planet I'll let get away with calling me a coward," MacLeod said shifting off the desk to move behind it. "And then only when he's right," he added and reached out to catch the name-caller by the back of the neck. "And I hate it when you're right."

"I'll remember that," Methos said as full soft lips closed over his and then coaxed his apart. No resistance and no protest.

Until the door opened. "Hey, Adam, we are getting busy--give us a hand...?" Joe Dawson said and then sighed as the laughter started. "Jeez guys," he said with good-natured indulgence. "Take it outside... "