Reading Between the Lines
by Maygra de Rhema

continued from part one...

Methos had always liked traveling but he was developing a real aversion to airports. Well, most airports. Seacouver's terminals were like a welcome home any longer but, he could do without entering another one on his own. Light traveler that he was, he had no need to try and maneuver his way through the baggage claim, but headed for the curb, ready to hail a cab. Before he could even get a hand out a limousine pulled up before him, the rear window descending at about the same time he felt the presence of another Immortal. He backed away only to have a familiar voice reassure him.

"The least I can do is offer you comfortable transportation," his host said.

A smirk appeared on Methos' face and he reached for the door handle before the chauffeur could and then glared at the man when he tried to take his duffel. A wary incline of his head and the chauffeur closed the door behind him.

"You get any more pretentious, Constantine, and I may come after your head on principle alone," Methos muttered, taking the seat facing the former Roman general, now turned historian and connoisseur.

The chauffeur entered and the car pulled away, Constantine setting the privacy glass. "Well, I was rather floored by your telephone call, Miklos. I would prefer this be a pleasant experience." He paused, then opened the bar offering Methos his choice of the beverages. The urge to grab one of the beers was strong but Methos resisted. He was here under duress and wanted no further favors from Constantine. "I was surprised by your call," the older-looking man offered softly.

"No more than I was," Methos murmured. "Don't think this a change in my opinion, Marcus. It's not. I am buying time...that's all."

"Another five or six hundred years?" Marcus asked with a faint smile. "Strange that you and Darius should be so opposed on this issue and yet so much in agreement concerning Duncan."

"This isn't all about MacLeod," Methos said. "And if you think it is, you are a bigger fool than I thought. And how are your stables, Marcus? I would have thought you could have raised the numbers to quite a respectable level by now."

Marcus' blue eyes seemed to go colder. "Don't think that because we disagree on the continual maintenance of the Game, that I find this any less distasteful than you do. That I have extended my protection to the knowing sisters of our race is hardly worth censure. Going after MacLeod was not my idea. The man is a friend, Miklos. No matter what else you think, that is the truth."

"Yes, but we have quite the different value placed on our definition of how far friendship will go than he does, don't we?" Methos said harshly. "I know what you think, Marcus. But so help me, if you go after Joe or Ryan, you will find yourself on the very short end of my sword. I would hate for you to go to your grave before I can pay my debt to you but don't think it can't happen. I don't have MacLeod's or your sense of honor," Methos said and was rewarded by a short, curt nod. They rode in silence for awhile, Methos desperately trying not to let his anger get the best of him. "So, how many?" he finally asked, hating himself for being curious.

"Eight that we know of and who are aware of their condition. We have rumors of a few more and there may yet be others we don't know about."

"And who is your gentle envoy now that Rebecca is dead?" Methos asked.

"It was...Cassandra..." Marcus said and his voice was somewhat apologetic as Methos closed his eyes. "I have to thank you for that, by the way. She may as well, someday."

The laugh escaping the older Immortal was mirthless. "Don't count on it. And don't count on her coming to this little orgy you have orchestrated."

Marcus made a face of disgust. "It is hardly that. And you must admit that the chances of progeny being placed where their circumstances are at least livable is much better my way than by chance alone."

"I am sure Richard Ryan would agree with you," Methos said sarcastically. "He had all the opportunities a nice fledgling Immortal should have."

"It happens. The plan was a good one but the timing was it was, it worked out for the best. He had MacLeod as a teacher, after all."

"Lucky for Ryan you decided to give Mac the benefit of the doubt," Methos said. "Of course that doesn't still hold true, now does it?"

Marcus stared out the window and refused to reply.

"You have always like your luxuries, Marcus," Methos commented as his pack was taken from him by an immaculate and traditionally austere butler. The estate Marcus Constantine now occupied as a primary residence was old, elegant and, Methos was glad to note, possessed of central heating.

"I think it rather foolish to exist through the centuries as a pauper," Marcus remarked, leading his 'guest' through the main hall to a private study. Once inside he offered Methos a glass of what was probably an incredibly fine brandy. Perverseness almost prompted Methos to demand a beer but he quieted the urge. He had called Marcus after all. He accepted the warmed snifter and sipped.

Incedibly fine, he acknowledged and took his glass and his very weary self to a comfortable looking chair near the open hearth and the fire. "So how many, Marcus? Have we tilted the game in favor of continuing yet?"

"Indelicate you have always been," Marcus said sitting across from him. "But, you are as likely to know as we are...perhaps more so. Joining the Watchers was an excellent idea."

"I wasn't the one who thought of it," Methos murmured. "How many? Round it off to the nearest century."

"Including young Ryan -- since you seem so concerned -- fourteen. This century. We have sorely missed your virility, Miklos."

"And my propensity toward daughters?" Methos said without humor. "Heaven forbid you should have any concern for my sensibilities," he added bitterly. "So how many willing participants to this travesty have you procured for my...attentions, Marcus. All eight?"

Marcus scowled at him. "You need not make it any more base than it already is. There are less than twenty males of age enough to propagate our race. And Duncan has killed a third of the previous number in less than a decade."

"Oh, of course, Kronos and Caspian and Silas should certainly have been preserved for their ability to breed!" Methos hissed.

"Or Kristen," Marcus shot back. "She was that close to being of age."

"She was a monster," Methos said. "If you'd taken more care of Rebecca, Kristen's death wouldn't have mattered so much. Of course, Nefertiri was willingly sacrificed. Don't throw my ghosts up in my face, Marcus. Yours are damnably close as well."

"You offered this deal," Marcus reminded him. "I don't want Duncan's head and God knows Darius didn't. Or Sean."

The inward wince at the last Methos hid under another swallow of brandy. "You can't blame Mac for his ability to survive the worst of us," he said softly.

"I don't. I have no intention of hurling Immortals at him in the hopes that one of them will be better than he is. There was a time when you thought this the best way to forestall the Gathering."

"And I changed my mind," Methos said finishing the brandy in a single gulp. "This is a one time offering, Marcus. Don't blow it. And I don't want to know where or with place any of these...infants. If I am very lucky this whole thing will be over before they ever know the legacy we curse them with."

"Do you really want the Game to end? You know it very likely that in the end you may well be facing MacLeod. Unless you plan on being foolish." Marcus said and then hissed as Methos' very obscured and very sharp short blade found itself pressed against Marcus' neck.

"Don't tempt me, Constantine," he said coldly. "You want to watch someone else cut a swath through our ranks? I am that close to it."

"Then why not?" Marcus said harshly, gripping the arms of his chair as the blade pressed against his skin.

Methos said nothing but pulled away, hiding the blade before his host could even register where.

Constantine studied the slender figure in front of him, seeing the tight muscles in Methos' back tighten even further.

"You want Duncan to father children," he said after a long silence. "That's why the concern about Ryan. The closest MacLeod has come...may yet come. This one visit won't buy him six hundred years, Miklos," Constantine said with real compassion.

"No. But it will, might buy him a few more. Then we can renegotiate. Or others may hit an age and you can maneuver your little intimate tete a tete's with them. Do you give the ladies a list, Marcus? Surely you aren't leaving it to chance?"

"You make me sound like a whore master."

"If the label fits -- for both of us," Methos said. "Now, there's a thought. An Immortal Brothel. Not that it hasn't been done before," he added softly.

"It is simply survival of another sort," Marcus said evenly. "That of a race instead of an individual."

"For some grand and glorious purpose," Methos said. "I know what Darius thought. But not all of us are Darius was. Or as..."

"As Duncan is?" Marcus said and moved in closer, cautiously. "You love too completely, my friend," he said laying a hand on Methos' shoulder.

"Much to the surprise of both of us," Methos admitted and the gaze he turned to Marcus was no longer angry but resigned and a little desperate. "Don't draw this out any longer than necessary, Marcus."

Constantine nodded in acquiescence. "As you wish. Do you want to meet your...the candidates or shall we just let you into a dark room?" His question was serious.

"Don't dehumanize me out of compassion," Methos murmured.

Another nod and Marcus left him. Desperately, Methos tried to keep his mind a blank. He was not that concerned about the actual act, only in armoring himself against the results.

It was not long before he felt the approaching presences. He tensed automatically, turning as the door was opened to admit Marcus and two very familiar companions.

His horror at Marcus' candidates' could not be hidden. "Oh, Marcus, you have badly mangled this," he gasped out. Confused but smiling, Amanda came forward and Methos reached for her, to hug her tightly, then release her and stare at the other woman standing so calmly in the doorway, her arm linked through Marcus'.

"Hello, Cassandra," Methos murmured and his fingers tightened on Amanda's shoulders. "Fancy meeting you here."

"Short notice allows limited choices," Marcus commented. "And Cassandra has agreed to a truce of sorts."

Squeezing Amanda's arm gently, Methos released her. "You and I need to have a little chat," he hissed at Marcus.

"You called me," Marcus reminded him, his face as impassive. "I can't force you to this, Miklos. Nor will I even attempt to try."

"Blackmail is a nasty business, Marcus," Methos warned him.

"So it is. Shall we discuss your objections, or shall I arrange for your flight back to the states?"

"What am I not understanding here?" Amanda said and came forward, dark eyes narrowed suspiciously then softening as she looked at Methos. "I'm not asking you to marry me," she teased and caught his hand, "and I believe the deal was one child," she added, glaring at Marcus.

"Amanda," Methos began and turned to face her. Gods above and below, she was beautiful, if her coloring were any different she would favor her mother far more than her sire. "No deal, Marcus," he said softly, touching her cheek in apology.

"Why?" Amanda asked confused. "Not because of Duncan, surely," she said.

"In part," he admitted.

"Doesn't she deserve an explanation?" Cassandra murmured in a tone that would melt butter. "Bloodlines will tell, won't they, Methos?" she asked.

"They certainly do," he responded icily. "Be careful what you say, Cassandra. You, of all people, should understand karma."

"I do. That's why this is so perfect. I can set aside my objections for a you said, things weren't all bad when we were together," she purred.

She wants this too much. The realization made him more edgy than he already was. "What about Alyx or Cierwyddn?" he asked and Marcus shook his head.

"What about me?" Amanda asked, and she caught Methos' hand again, dragging him into the room next to the study with an icy smile for both Marcus and Cassandra.

"Are you going to tell me what the problem is?" she said closing the pocket doors. "What about bloodlines? This all new to me, Methos...a lot of things are new to me," she added more pointedly. "Nice to find out about your living arrangements from a Watcher."

He closed his eyes. "You talked to Joe."

"No, Joe listened while I took my best shot at what was going on. What is it between you and Cassandra? Not that I care that much for her or ever had. And what the hell is your problem with me? I rather like the idea that my first child might be someone I gave a damn about," she said and her voice broke. It was not her usual break for persuasion.

Methos started, "Your first?" He turned to her and caught her hands in his but made no effort to comfort her. "A lot of things have happened, Amanda. And Mac and I, believe it or not, are the least of it. When did you find out?"

"Last spring...Rebecca warned me...told me that if some day I started...if my menses started, to come to her or to Marcus. There were some other names...I came to Marcus. He was the easiest to find."

"Late bloomer," he said with a faint, wry smile and Amanda gave a choked chuckle. "Amanda...I can't explain it all right now and I am not sure you want to really know."

"They are going after Duncan," she said softly, brown eyes meeting his steadily. "The Survivalists. Marcus told me that much, when he contacted me. I can be jealous as hell, but not that jealous. Not of you - and not to his death. Or yours. I don't know why you object to Cassandra, other than her truly horrible taste in clothes, but this's a business arrangement more than anything. Not necessarily a fairy tale."

Pulling her to a small settee, Methos did try and comfort her, pulling her slight frame against his own. "No, it's not. It never has been but it's gotten worse in the last thousand years or so. It's almost better if you don't know your partner, or at least don't care..." he added softly and kissed her forehead. "Cassandra and I have a history and it's fairly ugly. If you ask her, I am sure she will be glad to tell you - and no matter how awful it sounds, 'Manda, you can be fairly certain it's the truth."

"I don't think I like where this is going," Amanda said and sat up, sweeping her short dark bangs from her eyes. "So you hate her or she hates you - and the final objection is...?"

"I will not put a child of mine into her hands for even the ten seconds after the birth," Methos said so flatly and evenly, Amanda felt a chill run down her spine. "Her battle is with me, and I won't allow a child to be hostage to her hatred," he said.

"And you haven't taken her head yet? That's not like you at all..." she said and then trailed off at the look he shot her. She had been at the end of Methos' sword once...not very comfortably. He had stopped himself then. She had thought it because of a misunderstanding, because he had, perhaps, not been that angry with her...because he liked her. Now, looking at the impassive face and the set of his moth and jaw, she wasn't so sure.

"If there were more of you I might be tempted," he said after a long pause. "But there aren't so the point is moot."

Amanda got to her feet to pace the room, pausing by the door to listen and heard nothing. "All right, you won't have a child with Cassandra. So why am I a poor second as well?" she asked. "And please don't tell me this about Duncan. I don't own him...and it's obviously not a fear of infidelity on your part," she said and could have sworn she saw him flinch. "He doesn't know..." she said with sudden certainty.

"No, and you are not to tell him," Methos murmured. "He can't father children and I...the fewer who know the better off we all are. There was a time when this was handled pretty much without male intervention," he said. "It worked much better then."

"Pick our mates and disappear?" Amanda said. "You are such a romantic..." she rolled her eyes and then squeaked when Methos suddenly lunged from the settee to grip her arms painfully tightly.

"This is no joke, Amanda. For all his courtly manners, Constantine is deadly serious about are those who want it stopped -- few though they are anymore. Going after Mac is the least of what one side will do to ensure their opinion is the prevailing one. You think about it, Amanda. If there are any fewer viable females you may well find yourself locked up in a very nicely appointed prison cell and forced to endure the visit of any viable male that comes along until the population increases."

"That's ridiculous!" she said. "Marcus can't force me to have children!"

"No?" Methos snarled softly, his lips close to her ear. "Maybe while you are asking Cassandra why she hates me so much, you should ask Constantine how Rome kept up its necessary allotment of slaves. I can promise you they weren't all imports, Amanda. A goodly portion were home grown." He pushed off her and backed away.

"You still haven't answered my question," she murmured, rubbing her arms. "What is your objection to me?"

He dropped his head for a moment and rubbed his face with both hands. "You know that our healing...that for the most part, Immortals don't need to worry about the nasty recessive gene theory that mortals do when the bloodlines are too close. But there is some percentage of risk for extremely close bloodlines... you've heard Richie talk about Mikey or Mac's friend, Ursa, who used to live under the streets of Paris?"

Amanda nodded but when Methos said nothing more, she stopped waiting for him to give her more information and started thinking. Her conclusions made her face go pale, and her heart speed up. "You...oh no," she murmured. "No. You are lying!" Without another word, she turned and jerked the door open. She paid no mind to Marcus or Cassandra, walking by them with as much dignity as she could manage but immediately upon leaving their sight, the pace of her footsteps increased as she headed upstairs.

Marcus hesitated for a long moment before entering the room. "You could have remained silent," he said quietly.

"I will not father a child on my own daughter," Methos said, his voice hardly a whisper. "Especially not one whom I also consider a friend." He turned to face his host but it was not the regret in Marcus' face that caught his eye, but the fierce triumph in Cassandra's.

The room Constantine assigned to Methos was elegance personified and he felt singularly out of place among the rich wood and carefully preserved antiques. He slung his pack onto the heavily textured and tapestry-style bedspread, eyes roving without seeing over the graceful curves of the sleigh bed. He had declined a meal with Constantine and even now a tray was being sent up. Over his protests -- the thought of food making him ill.

With a desperation he thought buried and forgotten centuries he ago, he wished MacLeod were here. Not for the situation, not for the circumstances which Methos would not be able to share with his lover for another six centuries or more. He wanted Mac here because he needed the feel of his lover's arms around him. Despite the elegant appointment of the room Methos had no illusions as to his role in this monumental farce -- he was no less a whore now than he had been four thousand years ago when Kronos first found him or any of the odd centuries prior to that meeting. Except then the coin of payment had gone to his masters, or in an odd way to himself for being allowed to live another day as a vessel for another person's pleasure. Now the coin of payment was other lives and he was still answering to a master of sorts.

"Nothing like walking into slavery with your eyes wide open," he muttered to himself and pulled clean clothes out of his pack then stripped, heading for the bath. He had just settled in to a good soak when he felt a nearby presence. Water sloshed as he reached for his sword, then he recognized the thin familial edge to the presence, relaxing his grip on the hilt but only slightly.

"Interesting position to fight from," Amanda commented stopping just inside the bathroom door. She was not armed.

"Yes, well, I am not exactly among friends here," he said with a twist to his lips.

"Not all enemies either," Amanda commented and came forward. With slow movements she pulled the sword away from him and pushed him back down into the soapy water, picking up the washcloth and soap. He made no protest as she began washing his back, almost relaxing under the gentle touch. She was occupying her curiosity as well as providing some comfort. Whatever latent interest she might have had in him seemed to have faded with his announcement of their relationship, but her curiosity had not waned. She was so very used to seeing him garbed in those loose sweaters, she took the opportunity to closely examine the hidden body. The long, lean lines of his figure reminded her forcibly of her own. Oh, there was more power in the slender form, more muscle mass, more definition and with some abstract part of her brain she could understand Duncan's attraction. It had mirrored her own at one time. She pushed him forward a bit to reach his lower back and found herself staring at the musculature there. The skin under her hands was smooth, almost too smooth, and she fingered it, noticing the pale irregular spread of lines that were a half shade lighter than the rest of his skin. They almost looked like scars but they were so faded she couldn't be sure. She pushed him back again after rinsing him then used the washcloth to start easing the rigid muscles in his neck. His eyes were still closed and her eyes trailed down his chest with uncurtailed interest as she noted the trim waist curving into equally slender hips and not to go there, she reminded herself with a hidden smile. "I always wondered where I got the great figure from," she teased but her comment had the opposite effect as Methos tensed up again.

"Give it a little time, huh?" Amanda said beginning to smooth soap across his shoulders. "And have a little faith," she added nudging him.

"I didn't get this far on faith," Methos said and caught her hand. "Amanda, if this is going to be a seduction, I wish you wouldn't," he added softly.

"It would be better than a rape," she muttered.

"Don't be so certain," he returned sharply and rose. Amanda handed him a towel then stepped back into the bedroom; not out of modesty but because the bathroom was small. She sprawled back on the bed on her elbows watching him as he dried off but there was only open curiosity in her gaze rather than interest at the moment.

"Why rape?" she questioned after he had wrapped the towel around his hips. "And why shouldn't the males know?"

"Well, if you get a child out of violence there's a whole slew of reasons not to want to raise it, now aren't there?" he said bitterly and then rubbed a hand over his face.

It disturbed Amanda not at all as she observed him, that under other circumstances he might have passed for a younger brother -- possibly even her son. He looked so very young at the moment, so lost, and she realized he was. The gold-green eyes had gone unfocused, the slim body swaying slightly. She sat up and caught his hands, pulling him around. The movement broke whatever spell his memories were weaving.

"Hey!" she said softly, pulling him down beside her. "Methos, I understand some of this -- part of it."

"No, I don't think you do," he said after a moment, eyes still on some distant vision. "Amanda, if all Immortals were like Mac, or even Rebecca, the whole idea of children among us might have been handled very differently. My mother would have been a good candidate as well except for the fact that at the time of my birth she was considered a god...we all were. When we knew...and it could have been a war between the gods had it ever gotten anymore out of control than it did. But being Immortal doesn't make us any nobler than being mortal and in most cases of my experience, the price of Immortality is often madness."

"Methos," Amanda said, trying to draw him out of this. She had half a mind to call MacLeod. "Did you know both your parents?"

"After the fact, yes. And only by accident -- because...because Heyla had to...managed to intervene in ..." he stopped, and for a brief moment Amanda thought he would be ill. He recovered but he seemed to barely be talking to her. "The idea of Cassandra having a child of mine...." he shuddered and Amanda wrapped both arms around him.

"This isn't like you," she said, alarmed. "Methos, whatever this is costing's not worth it. Mac can fight his own battles."

"Not this one," he whispered against her shoulder. "They won't come after him fairly this time, Amanda."

"Then tell him! They are holding you hostage to the truth!"

"The ubiquitous 'they'," he chuckled bitterly. "There is no 'they' Amanda. I did this. I helped set this madness up long before you were born. Then I tried to get out of it...the Survivalists and the Players. I thought I could avoid both."

"And then?" she prompted, not sure why Methos was telling her this except it seemed important to him that he do so -- and that he be allowed to tell as much as he wanted to when he wanted to. Her prompt hung between them and Amanda made a decision right then and there. No matter Methos' reasons, whatever battle he was fighting he was losing. Reinforcements were needed.

He was silent. Gone again she realized and caught his chin in her hand. He met her gaze and she could see the exhaustion there. "What are you going to do?"

"Tell Marcus the deal is off," he said finally. "For now at least."

A soft rap on the door interrupted him and Amanda could have cursed or killed. Instead she got up and answered the door, accepting the tray from one of Constantine's servants and sending them away again. She set the tray on the bed and sat again, fixing the coffee and pressing the cup into Methos' hands. He took it without protest, sipping at the hot liquid slowly.

"What can I do?" she asked when he seemed reluctant to re-open the conversation.

"Have your child, Amanda," he said in a quiet voice, almost devoid of expression. "Marcus will see to the placement of the child after it's born. He is very...careful, Amanda. Probably the most careful of the ...trustees there has ever been. As to whether you want this charade of a Game to continue, that is your decision. Just be aware of the consequences."

"And what do you want -- you think the Game should be allowed to reach its natural conclusion?"

"I am five thousand years old, Amanda," he said. "What I might think of the Game is slightly colored by that fact. What you decide is up to you. All I can tell you is that I am not quite through with living, just yet."

"What bargain have you made with Constantine? With the Survivalists? A baby a year for each year they don't go after Duncan? Do you get let out of it if somebody gets Mac first?" she said harshly and finally got a reaction from Methos that wasn't guarded. Anger was the most pronounced of the expressions chasing themselves across the strained, angular features.

It took him a few moments and then he smiled, the tight features relaxing slightly. "I take it back -- I think you can hold your own. The bargain I's not quite that extreme. Yes, a child. And I get to go hunting," he added. "Explain that to Mac, if you can. Having now declared undying love to him, why I am soon to be on the lookout for females we don't know about who can breed. And Marcus thinks he is a whoremaster."

Amanda stared at him, fighting to keep the shock off her face but he wasn't fooled and the bitter smile returned. "Don't try to make excuses for me, 'Manda. There aren't any."

"Then why? Methos, this makes no sense to me at all! Tell Duncan. If it needs to remain such a huge secret, he of all people will keep it if you ask him. You have to know that!"

"No!" he hissed and caught her wrists tightly. "Listen to me, Amanda. I have placed him at an unacceptable level of risk already -- if you think all the Survivalists are men, you think again. What do you think would happen if he came up against Cassandra or Cierwyddn or some other woman he knew to be capable of bearing children? I can make the distinction between saving my own life and saving a life when it is expedient to do so -- but I wouldn't hesitate to kill either of them -- or you -- if I had to. All the things that you and I both love the most about MacLeod also make him incredibly vulnerable. I want him to live...head intact, lies intact, sorrows at his lack of fatherhood intact for a long, long time."

"And because he might hate you if he ever found out you knew and didn't tell him?" she demanded.

"I can live with his hatred as long as he gets to live with it. This isn't about what I feel for Mac. If the Game lasts long enough for him to father his own children -- maybe father your children -- it will be worth it. If it ends tomorrow or in ten years I don't want him to regret what might never be. The ability to bear children among our race is as much a weapon as it is a blessing -- maybe more a weapon. And knowing certainly allows the scales to be tipped one way or the other. Those who know are very carefully chosen, Amanda, and the ones who find out on their own more often go hunting for pre-immortals than not. Or hunting Immortals. Expand your imagination a bit." He released her wrists and rose from the bed, grabbing at his clothes. "Take a lovely piece of work like Kalas or Kronos and project out the idea that they might have known. Do you think either of them might have any scruples about taking an unwilling bride and fathering an entire line of Immortals? World domination could take on a whole new meaning."

"You make it sound as if that were a certainty, not just a possibility," she said rubbing the skin on her wrists where he had bruised the pale flesh...another trait they shared.

"I think it a highly likely possibility," he growled, slipping into his jeans then bending to pick up the fallen towel and Amanda found her eyes going to his back again.

The light must have hit him just so for her to see the pattern, uneven as it was. She had seen men flogged before both right after the act and when the scars had formed. For all the faintness of the traces, her mind clicked pieces together like the correct tumbling of bearings in a lock.

"You've watched it happen," she said softly. "You were part of such a plan -- unwillingly."

He went still, clenching his fists around the towel before nodding. "I was the product of such a plan. The wars of the gods are ugly things, especially for the pawns. And even if no one believes in the old gods any longer, there's room for new ones in the world -- confused as it is. In this case ignorance is the best prevention."

"And so the oldest living Immortal inflicts his opinion on the world without its knowledge. That's arrogant even for you, Methos," she said.

"Not inflict -- refuse to be part of it," Methos said. "Until now. Even the Survivalists understand that much, but they would since most of them, including you, have lived through enough history to understand how easily it is to subjugate another. Amanda," he turned to face her and his expression was pained and pleading. "I am not trying to make decisions for the whole world, or even for our little twisted part of it. I am trying to..." he faltered and Amanda got to her feet to hold him again, not sure she could stand to see him break down.

"Just trying to salvage what you can for those you love," she whispered against his hair.

She was quite right. Having Methos break down in her arms was her undoing. Any unresolved feelings she might have had in discovering he had had sired her and then left her to fend for herself in world that had been brutal and cold and unforgiving faded under the silent sobs that wracked his frame. Part of it was exhaustion, she knew, but the rest: this emotional outburst was not quite so alien to her as it might have once been. Knowing what lengths he had gone to try and save a dying mortal woman, she had no difficulty believing he would do nearly anything to save Duncan. Why he had shared so much of his plan she could only guess at but her decision to have Marcus pick up an overseas phone bill no longer had any doubt to it. She could not tell Mac the all of it -- or any of it, she realized without compromising herself, Methos, or Mac. But she could get the Highlander here and that seemed the best plan she could come up with.

She held Methos and murmured nothings into his ears, easing him back onto the bed and waiting until the storm passed. She coaxed him into eating, the sudden maternal instincts surprising them both. Then she diverted him, questioning him about Duncan, summoning up those comforts with teasing and wry comments and comparisons until he relaxed, or at least grew so tired that his answers became monosyllables. She regaled him with tales of her exploits with Duncan until she got no more response than a soft snore.

She set the tray aside and covered him. His fatigue was deep and he never even moved as she bent to kiss his cheek, finding his skin slightly flushed. She watched him sleep for awhile, finishing off what was left of the carafe of wine sent with the meal then gathered the tray up and left him.

She left the tray outside his room and went to her own, surprised to find the household dark. She stripped and put on a negligee then picked up the phone.

Duncan was not home, to her annoyance, but she left him a message, telling him to book the first flight to London he could manage and to call her service. She felt uncomfortable explaining any more on the phone, just telling him that Methos was with her and his presence was much needed.

She hung up and rose to go to the bath only to find the room spinning dizzily around her. She clutched at the door to the bathroom and then she was falling, her last thought was of Methos' warning about being locked in a cell. That they might drug her to get her there had not occurred to her.

He became vaguely aware of movement first; the shadow-shimmer that was not quite seen but felt as in some distant echo of memory. It meant something to him or should, this feeling that disturbed him and dragged his senses from the borders of sleep into the haze of pre-consciousness.

Instinct raged through him and he fought for some form of clarity, even if only to recognize his own dreaming state. It would not come easily and the first subtle waves of panic set in, increasing as the movement became more recognizable as the actual feel of movement across his skin. The rasp of cloth should have felt smooth but instead scraped at his skin like sandpaper and bared him to the chill air of the night's darkness. He reached for those coverings he knew must exist on the bed and found his arms immobile.

He pulled; that panic rising from subtle to raging as he twisted, no longer sure it was a dream as his breath constricted in his lungs and his heart raced.

Only one ankle was caught as well, and his only free limb was caught not by those bonds that he could not see as they tore at his flesh, but by the fleshy coolness of a long-fingered hand. He kicked out and heard a low snap of sound and then pain shot up his calf as weight was applied to that extremity. The fingers replaced by another bond, rough and rasping -- the raw feel of a hemp rope binding the limb until he was spread-eagle across Marcus Constantine's antique bed.

His only comforting thought was that as out of it as he had been until the last few moments, whoever had so bound him need not go to such elaborate methods to have taken his head. They could have done it and he none the wiser for being in state not unlike an opium dream.

Neither dream nor nightmare then, he thought as he came to clarity and full consciousness with a sudden jolt.

"Drugged," he managed though his throat was suddenly dry as cotton, a fact he had not noticed before.

"Yes," responded the soft voice, familiar and chilling despite the rounded tone and those steady fingers traced a line from his throat to his sternum and rested there for a moment before traveling upward again. "I rather prefer it this way," Cassandra said coolly, fingers coming to rest at his throat. "And you may as well, if I recall correctly. At least you will to be able to honestly say you came to this unwilling," she hissed leaning close enough for him to feel her hair trail across his skin. "I believe Kronos also found it necessary on occasion to bind you when you would not obey."

"Is this your vengeance, Cassandra?" Methos asked her, still testing his bonds. They were tight, tight enough for him to already begin to feel the burn in his fingers from the lack of circulation.

"Of a sort. You made a bargain...Marcus would have let you slip out of it. His decency far exceeds yours. I am simply ensuring that bargain is kept." Her breath was close to his ear, hot, and her tone seductive, the undercurrents probing at his will, looking for a weakness there. Her fingers traveled along the taut curve of his bicep.

"Should I be flattered that you feel so strongly about my credibility that you feel compelled to ensure it?" he returned then bit back a sharp cry as those long, strong fingers, nails sharp as razors, dug into his arm, twisting the muscle with such force that he could feel the sinew begin to pull away from the bone of his arm.

"Be flattered that I feel enough of anything to have discarded emasculation as the end of our little reunion," she hissed and released him, moving away. She returned a moment later and the panic rose again as she gripped his hair and then pinched his nostrils closed until he was forced to open his mouth to breathe. The gag was neither foul nor cruel but it was effective, and the knot she tied behind his head forced the heavy cloth strip to cut into the sides of his face as tightly as the ropes did his limbs. "Not that Marcus would interfere short of me taking your head," she remarked almost idly and Methos desperately wished he could see her face to see if madness resided there as well as in her voice and actions. "But I did not want to rely on my former charms to reason with you -- there is no reasoning with you. I learned that several lifetime's ago. And since I have no desire for this to be necessarily pleasant for you...well, unwilling is unwilling as you know. It's not the body, it's the mind." She was moving again. In the darkness she became only a shadow and seemed to feel no need to see her captive any more clearly than he could see her. Her hand slid up the inside of his thigh, not in a caress but only seeking. Finding the soft folds of his cock, her other hand covered him with a substance that was cool at first and then began to warm even after her hands had left him.

"So you may return and tell whatever tale you like," she said moving once more, her hands seeking something on the bedside table. He could not even protest, knowing the why and suspecting her motives, the idea itself sending a chill through him as it had earlier. His child in Cassandra's care. That the mere existence of such a child could hurt him was as ridiculous as anything he had ever known, but what Cassandra planned for the child did make him nauseated. He had little hope that any progeny from this unequal union would be allowed to foster with one of Marcus' carefully picked families. Nor did success in trying to deny Cassandra her goal in overcoming the resistance of his body seem likely. Even as he thought it, he felt the slide of a needle against the blood pulsing in his throat. It could still be called rape for it was not a union he would willingly have made.

Whatever drug she had given him burned through his blood like acid and he shifted against the alien substance to the extent of his bonds, the soft mewling sound in his throat completely unbidden. It was not the torture of his body Cassandra wanted but of his will and some small part of him acknowledged that he had expected this much -- if not the method -- else he would have been back on the plane the moment he had realized that Marcus' candidates for this brief mating were neither suitable nor wise.

He was surrendering up a child to save Mac's life. He had known that upon entering this bargain. It was only the smallest balm to the shreds of his conscience to know that he was currently helpless to deny Cassandra her revenge.

Flesh gave way to science but the burn and flood of blood through him did not stop nor start at his cock but swelled his heart. It was racing again, his skin too cool from the amount of sweat that suddenly covered him. Her hands felt him again, checking him for readiness, her very calmness as unnerving as anything else. He was having trouble getting a deep breath as he felt the stirring in his groin, a sensation he tried vainly to still, dragging on the training and will-power and strength that had sufficed in the past only to find them all failing him in slow stages as her light touch was enough to awaken a need he did not want to feel.

Movement again as she shifted on the bed to straddle him, the thin whisper of silk against his skin from her nightgown. She leaned forward to lay something near his head: a second syringe.

"Shall I tell you what will happen to this child of ours, Methos?" she murmured evenly. "You know there is more to this than the propagation of our race. You know that I will take this child and see to it that it is raised to know nothing but hatred for you and for all you love. If you love...and you do which is even better. Were you incapable of feeling then even this revenge would mean nothing." She moved against him, parting her thighs, positioning him and herself with no more passion or care than she might rearrange a silverware drawer. "But you do...there must be some small part of you that is capable of caring or no one, not Duncan, not Amanda, not that poor baffled Watcher friend of Duncan's, would care for you at all. It's not enough for me, though. Enough to spare your life -- to leave you your head. You cared some small part for me when we met. I know that too. But it is not enough," she said and settled across him, the sudden sheathing of his flesh in her body summoning a groan for the increase in sensation and the steady weakening of his will to the demands of his body. She stayed still, that position an agony of deprivation for Methos as he strained muscles so as not to move.

"It may never be enough," she whispered as she began to move against him, body tightening and releasing around him as she rose and his moan of denial was lost against the gag as he felt the twitch and burn deep in his groin. "Shall I kill you as you release, Methos? Shall I let death be your final protest? Had I more time there are payments I could exact, things I have learned that even Kronos would never have thought to attempt." The compulsion in her Voice spread fear into already over-wrought limbs, denoting points of reality at his wrists and ankles, his groin, as she went still, fingers grazing over his chest lightly as he panted from the aching need she had built within him. "And you may damn me as well, now," she continued leaning forward. "To know this helplessness. I will bear your child, Methos. I will raise this progeny of yours to know only one thing and that will be the nature of your true self. Had I known where you were earlier I might have done the same with another child but this will be sweeter to know that one of your line, of your blood, will become what you once were for one purpose. Or perhaps I will take this child and give it to one -- someone near as old as I, someone you knew too well once -- who will enact a revenge upon your bloodline for lack of having you. He has been hunting for you. He has been hunting your line."

She paused, fingers tightening across his breast, the claws closing over the over-sensitive flesh as she listed to the harsh sound of his breathing, to the sharp gasp as her fingers dug into his flesh, claws in truth as they scored his skin. She released him just as suddenly and reached up past him, Methos only barely able to acknowledge it as the blood roared in his ears, his chest aching as if he were suffocating and his hips straining to seek that torturous release that she denied him.

"But you will probably not care so I can, for now, only take what I want and be sure you know that this child was born out of hate -- as I was." Her tone was ice cold, the Voice cutting through the drugs to reside in his brain.

He had never denied her hate, or her right to feel it, but this was a physical, living thing. A beast that curled inside him to snap at his entrails as Cassandra might have had she gutted him to pull them free. She moved again, body working in short fast slides against his swollen flesh, riding him until his spine arched and he felt the first wash of release as a sharp pain in his gut and then there was more as that second syringe was suddenly and viciously driven into his chest.

His scream was a muffled and choked cry as that sliver of steel worked inward, sharp as a knife, into his heart, the chemicals delivered thusly seeming to burn like ice, increasing the straining effort of his heart until he was certain it would explode. He could not even feel Cassandra around him any longer as the pain set in, only barely aware that he was spilling his seed into the waiting vessel of her body, idly wondering through the haze of red that had replaced the darkness if there would not be blood mixed with the potent spill of his legacy.

The newer agony replaced the old as his body vainly tried to finish its release, still trying to summon up and deliver semen past the point where he was empty. She moved off him and left him to wait in the darkness, listening to his sobs as his body refused to end its quest, as hard and needy as he had been when she began. Thrashing did nothing but increase his pain but that pain was his goal, to wash the need away with the sharper pains of protesting muscles.

Until he was exhausted. Until every breath had to be fought for. She was close again and her touch started the cycle again. Only she did not cover him, did not offer her body again for even the illusion that would be some surfeit in this. Some solace.

"Perhaps emasculation would be kinder," she chuckled evilly in his ear, her fingers once more sliding across the healing scratches on his chest.

Methos could not answer, nor really even hear her any longer. Her voice, the denied urgings of his body ripping through the now to propel him deeper in his past than he wanted to go. He had known this agony before, had been held on the edge of this precipice before for the same reasons: forced to surrender control, to surrender his identity, his will into the hands of another. For pleasure, for pain, for power -- the reasons didn't matter any longer, nor did the thoughts, the rationalization that this might in some way be justice for his one time slave. The sheer agony, the perversion of such a singular pleasure, was curse enough for him to know that he could not end it save with his death. If then.

It was a slim hope, but better than none and he willed it, feeling his heart beating too fast, straining too hard, knowing there would be additional pain before the nothing enfolded him. There was no fear it would be permanent, only the vain hope and even that was denied him as realized that on dying he would never know if Duncan could ever forgive him.

Then there was no forgiveness, only the pain and the hunger and the despair of knowing that after five thousand years, he was still not master of his own destiny.

Amanda woke to find herself in her borrowed bed and stretched, wondering why her head still ached so. She rose to find the bathroom, splashing water on her face to clear the traces of...

The memory shocked her awake. She had been drugged. From the wine; from the wine sent with Methos' meal. It had not been meant for her but for...

She might have started a keening cry had she taken that much time for the reaction to set in rather than reacting herself. She bothered with nothing, not robe nor demands as she ran down the hall, desperately seeking for a signature. She could not have been drugged so thoroughly to have missed a Quickening, could she?

The door to Methos' room opened as she neared, Marcus holding it open as two servants emerged with bed clothes and cloths, some of which bore the crimson and brown stains of blood, the scent of carnage and the musky odor of sex assaulting her.

"He is alive," Marcus said soothingly at a glimpse of her pale face.

The fear vanished under anger, a rage so intense Amanda could not remember ever feeling its like. "Where is she?" she demanded, still moving forward.

"Gone. Several hours ago." Marcus' expression changed not at all, unmoved but he did not deny her entrance. "Remember the why of this, Amanda. Not the methods," he said quietly and her answer was a slap that sent his head jerking to one side and left the very clearly defined print of her hand on his cheek.

"You can take my name off your rolls, you bastard," she hissed and then moved past him, shutting the door behind her and leaning against it until she could stop shaking, her eyes seeking proof of his words.

"It's over and done, 'Manda," the familiar baritone said with far more calmness than Amanda felt. Methos emerged from the bathroom, clothed in sweat pants with a towel once more around his shoulders. He looked like hell -- No, he looked like he had been living in hell, but the gold-green eyes were clear, the angular planes of his face set into an emotionless mask.

"What did she do?" she whispered, wanting to close the distance but the coldness in his manner kept her back. Methos looked quite willing and able to kill anything that came within reach.

"I doubt you want the sordid details," he said, surrendering the towel for a shirt and the sweats for his jeans. His pack was already on the freshly made bed, his sword bright and obvious beside it. "She got what she wanted. Marcus got what he wanted. I got what I wanted. Everyone is incredibly pleased at the way things turned out," he said making no effort to hide his bitterness or his anger or his...

There was no escaping the truth and she couldn't let him return and find what he needed winging his way here. "I called Duncan," she said. "He should be on his way here."

"You did what?" he snarled, vaulting the bed so quickly Amanda could only squeak before he had her pinned to the door, the eyes so bright and burning she couldn't meet them.

"I called him, last night and left a message," she said swallowing against the murderous look in his eyes. "After last night -- You need him."

The anger scored his face then gave way to something else, a grief so deep Amanda could not follow it. "Damn you," he whispered then pushed away, sitting on the bed to pull on socks and boots savagely, every line of his body radiating tension.

"Methos, I'm sorry," she said, not exactly sure what she was apologizing for except that she owed him one...probably the least in the household but it was unlikely he would get one from anyone else.

He went still and then nodded, standing up slowly to face her, expression once more under his rigid control. "It's done," he said flatly. "Go get dressed then unless you want more of Marcus' hospitality. If Mac is coming here then we may as well meet him at the airport."

Amanda nodded and slipped out of the room without another word, closing ears and heart and mind so that she could truthfully say she didn't hear the sob that escaped from behind the closing door.

There was no polite leave taking of their host for all that Constantine remained ever gracious, ordering a car for them and seeing them safely off. Amanda was quick to notice that he kept a healthy distance between himself and Methos, however. Her elder...friend...seemed uninterested in even the thought of challenging the old Roman. His single concern was to put as much distance between himself and the elegant country house as possible.

Attempts at conversation during the drive fell flat and hard and Amanda found herself making quite the inroad into the well stocked bar in Constantine's limousine. By the time they reached Heathrow she was well on her way to becoming embarrassingly ridiculous or incredibly maudlin.

She sobered up rather quickly once at the airport, trailing after Methos like a put-out child, but follow she did as Methos checked the desk and with the hard edge of persuasion and a relatively blatant use of hard cold cash, had MacLeod's flight number and was off to the air terminal to meet his unwelcome mate. He showed no care at all if Amanda followed but she did, quite ready to pity any stray Immortal that happened to be trying to make a flight out of London. The set look on Methos' face was enough to stop them cold.

"He's going to have questions," Amanda ventured as they found places to sit and wait.

"Then you had best be prepared with some answers," Methos muttered. "I didn't call him."

Now it was Methos who sounded like a sulky child and his reaction forced Amanda to look at him once more, noting the anger, the stillness of the slender frame, the set of his jaw as if bracing himself for a blow.

"He won't hate you. He loves you," she whispered in his ear. That reassurance bought her no words, but the graceful fingers found her hand to clasp it strongly over the arm of the chair. Nothing in his face changed nor was there any alteration in the tension of his body.

The announcement of arrival did not move them from their seats, nor did the first wave of disembarking passengers. The signatures, the first strong and certain, echoed by another, did drag them to their feet. Impossibly, Methos seemed to grow more tense only to have it slack off a bit as he spotted MacLeod and then the familiar red-gold sheen of Richie Ryan's hair.

Mac spotted them first, checking their passports through customs, his eyes on Methos as he spoke absently to the official and took the passports back. Both men carried only overnight bags and with a sense of disbelief Amanda realized Duncan was not even carrying a sword case.

It was she that came forward first. Methos seemingly had taken root in the floor, unable or unwilling to move. Richie looked only confused as Amanda slipped from MacLeod's arms to greet him. They had obviously both expected something else...something worse.

Don't blow this, Duncan, Amanda prayed, keeping her arms around Richie as she watched the Highlander move slowly toward his errant lover.

Have a little faith, she thought rather relievedly a moment later.

"Are you all right?" Mac asked softly, stopping only inches from Methos, dark eyes raking over the familiar figure with an intimate and possessive assessment.

"I'm fine. Amanda shouldn't have called," Methos said flatly. "There's nothing for you to do here, Mac. We may as well find a place to sleep and catch the first flight back we can manage," he said with an indifference the sphinx might have envied.

MacLeod wasn't done, stopping Methos with a touch as the older Immortal moved toward the exit. "Is that it? That's all I get? No explanations," Mac said quietly.

The older man remained still, prepared for a tirade, for MacLeod's temper, his disgust...whatever. Nothing would get through the tightly held armor and Mac almost missed it - his throat working to swallow the thick knot of emotion.

MacLeod wanted to demand answers. He wanted reassurance that his lover was indeed, all right, even though any fool could see not everything was perfect. Methos looked as he always did, slightly slumped in his posture, the thick sweater obscuring the body MacLeod missed like part of himself when it did not sleep next to his. The hazel eyes were steady, fathomless, revealing no more than Methos wanted them to reveal.

Part of MacLeod was quite prepared to throw a rage right there, to accuse, cajole, reason and berate his lover for the worry and the uncertainty.

"Are you coming back?"

"Yes. If you will let me."

Not certain then - not sure at all that MacLeod would be able to bear this latest secret, this new mystery. Yet Methos had gone anyway. Whatever his reasons, they had been strong enough to jeopardize his relationship with MacLeod. A risk worth taking.

It still was, Mac realized. Methos stood there as if nothing mattered, as if he could care less if Mac threw a fit or challenged him in the middle of the airport. But he did care or he wouldn't be waiting. He wouldn't have bothered to come to the airport at all and he wouldn't be standing there waiting to see how his lover would react before deciding which way to jump.

Without a word or changing his expression Mac reached out and pulled the slender form against his own. The moment their bodies touched he heard a very soft sigh and felt Methos relax against him - almost forcing Mac to hold him up, the release of tension was so sharp. What have you done, beloved? Mac thought silently and swallowed convulsively as he folded his arms around his lover and felt Methos' arms wrap around his waist. It did not last long -- just a welcome, a reassurance before Methos pulled back. Mac wasn't ready to let him go yet and slipped his arm around the slender shoulders to keep Methos close and then pressed his lips briefly to his lover's temple. Without releasing Methos, he moved them both around and cocked his head, indicating Richie and Amanda should join them.

Amanda's arm slid around Mac's waist to rest over Methos' arm as the four of them walked through the terminal toward the taxi stands. Explanations might or might not come but for the moment, nearly everything that Duncan MacLeod held dear was within his reach.

They took rooms at The Park, two rooms joined by a living suite. Amanda stepped up to the counter to handle the bill which caused MacLeod to raise an eyebrow but with so many other unanswered questions, Amanda's sudden wealth and generosity seemed barely worth mentioning.

"And exactly how are we splitting the rooms?" Richie asked, trying to sound casual but his math was pretty good -- three guys, one girl and for some reason he didn't think Mac would be sleeping in the same room with Amanda, much less the same bed. On reaching the suite, however, the rooms revealed a king in one room and two doubles in the other. Amanda did not even hesitate as she dragged Richie into the room with the two beds, a speculative look in her eyes.

Somehow, asking Mac for a rescue seemed less than mature. Once in the room, however, with the door closed, Amanda gave him a different kind of eye. "Don't get any ideas, Ryan," she said and then blithely informed him she had ordered room service before disappearing into the bathroom.

With the rest of their entourage occupied in the other room, Mac found himself alone with a very silent but not quite hostile or defensive lover. Methos shed his pack and coat and sword in short order, settling into the sofa in the master suite as if his legs would no longer hold him up.

Mac had no words that he could phrase that wouldn't come out as either more questions or accusations or just plain pique so he settled on action instead. Moving to the sofa, he sat, unlacing Methos' boots to remove them, capturing his ankle securely when Methos would have pulled away.

"I don't need a caretaker," Methos said, meeting the dark eyes for only a moment before looking away.

"I know. But if I can't help you with whatever this is, then at least let me do what I can," Mac said carefully and waited.

Methos chewed on his lower lip for a moment before nodding slightly, closing his eyes and leaning back into the corner of the sofa. But the hazel eyes were not hidden fast enough for Mac to miss a suspicious brightness there.

He finished stripping the footwear off, rubbing his lover's feet for a moment before rising again, seeking out the small wet bar. No beer waited but there was a reasonable scotch and Mac poured two fingers in two glasses, bringing them both back to the couch before resuming his massage.

"Little early in the day for you, Mac," Methos said, sipping at the liquor.

"You look like you could use it and I know I can," Mac said, making no effort to hide his stress but still not pressing the issue. Nevertheless, Methos made to pull away again, getting to his feet.

Nerves already frayed snapped and Mac made a grab for him, catching Methos around the waist to pull him back down. He did not anticipate the violence of the older Immortal's reaction. Methos' fist caught him along the jaw, sending Mac sprawling on the couch and the momentum tumbled Methos into the coffee table, his glass and MacLeod's crashing to the floor and shattering.

Richie was in the room in a heartbeat and Amanda only a second behind -- just in time to see Mac get to his feet and stare at his lover in disbelief and shock before he schooled his features to a stony expression and turned away. Richie took a half step toward Mac but the Highlander raised his hand, telling him to stay with a silent command as he headed for the door.

Amanda's eyes were fixed on Methos' face, seeing the same helpless despair in his face she had seen the night before. Then it was gone, buried under the expressionless mask he had worn all day.

Stubborn, stupid, men she thought angrily, pushing past Richie and then catching his hand. "Duncan!" she snapped out, enough to catch his attention, not daring to look at Methos. "It was Cassandra," she said and heard Methos barely utter a curse.

It had the desired affect though. MacLeod stopped, shock and confusion on his face as he stared at Amanda and then at Methos. The older Immortal's expression had not changed, his silence as much a challenge as stubbornness.

"She's alive...but she wouldn't be if I could have gotten to her," Amanda added with uncharacteristic viciousness.

"What did she do?" MacLeod asked, almost afraid of the answer. "Did she challenge you?" he asked Methos.

For a long moment Amanda thought Methos might not answer. Come on, love. Give a little. she coaxed silently.

"More like a threat," Methos said finally and sat down again, dropping his hands between his knees and then raising them to rub his face. "It's done. It's over," he said half to himself.

"Is it?" Mac asked moving to stand behind his lover.

"For now. I'm sorry. I 'm just strung a little tight, right now, Mac," Methos said leaning back to stare up at his lover.

"We all are," Amanda said. "And I need some stress relief. Come on Richie. We are going shopping!!" she said with false brightness.

"Mac?" Richie asked, resisting her tugs on his arms.

"It's okay, Rich. We'll see you at dinner. Make sure she doesn't steal anything," he added, almost as an afterthought, and reached for his wallet.

"Don't need it, Duncan," Amanda said with a saucy grin. "Borrowed a little credit from an old friend," she said and pulled at Richie again. When MacLeod offered his young friend a less tense smile, Richie acquiesced and left the two men alone once more.

"Why did you bring Ryan? " Methos asked as Mac made his way around the sofa to sit beside his partner.

"I didn't know what was going on. He didn't want me to come without someone to watch my back," Mac said.

"Should be my job," Methos said wryly.

"That works both ways," Mac said and reached up to gently rub the back of his lover's neck. "What did she do?"

"Exacted a little revenge. Let me pay off some debt," Methos said. "Leave it, Mac. Please. It doesn't matter. She's not after my head and she's gone. It's over."

"And you're fine," Mac said in a tone that said he didn't believe it for one moment.

Methos dropped his head, letting MacLeod's strong fingers work at the tight muscles. When Mac's other hand rested on his knee he covered the broader hand with his own. A moment later he went still as Mac lifted his chin, turning his head to kiss him, softly, demanding nothing but only accepting what Methos offered.

When his lover's mouth opened under his, MacLeod was suddenly awash with fear and relief in equal parts. Had he been here to watch Methos' back as he had sworn to do, could he have faced Cassandra? Taken her head if necessary? He wasn't sure he knew the answer and wondered, as he pulled Methos against him, if his lover had wondered the same thing. Had Methos deliberately removed that choice, that decision?

He might never know he acknowledged to himself as his lover pulled away only enough to nestle more firmly in MacLeod's arms. Mac leaned back, drawing Methos down with him until they were half-laying down on the sofa.

"Someday, will you tell me?" Mac asked softly, filtering the fine silk of Methos' hair through his fingers.

"Someday, Mac," Methos murmured and settled, his body relaxing. "Someday, I'll tell you why," he promised.

Mac smiled faintly, tempted to tell Methos that he already knew the why. Someday, if he loved Methos enough, his lover might trust him with the rest of it. Until then, Mac would have to work harder at seeing the love behind the actions, to see the reasons between the words.

Part of the truth was hidden in there somewhere. The rest of it lay in his arms well within his reach, and safe, for the moment, from the reach of anything that could harm either of them.