Reading Between the Lines
by Maygra de Rhema

"Richie!" Mac snapped in frustration as the younger man nearly walked into his blade as they worked on disarming.

Richie flushed. He wasn't really MacLeod's student any more but if he had learned nothing else from the Highlander, it was that practice was as necessary as breathing to life; especially for an Immortal. Generally Mac was a patient teacher but lately he had seemed more on edge. Richie had his own opinions about the cause but with newly won wisdom, kept his opinions to himself.

Plus, there weren't that many Immortals in Seacouver and the only other person he might know well enough to spar with was Methos -- who was currently in Paris though due back today. Even so, given his other suspicions challenging Methos to even a spar was a totally unthinkable alternative.

He mumbled an apology and tried to re-focus, only to have his concentration completely blown again by the presence of another Immortal. MacLeod tensed as well then relaxed -- really relaxed -- a smile curving his mouth as he turned expectantly toward the door.

The younger Immortal knew the signs. He didn't need to have a connection forged in multiple Quickenings to recognize Methos. Not that he could distinguish the oldest Immortal's signature from anyone else's, but MacLeod's reaction gave him all the signals he needed -- as well as a few he wasn't sure he did want to know about.

He found himself studying the oldest Immortal with different eyes as Mac left their spar to greet his...

He couldn't say it. Could barely think it and shunted it away so quickly it left him dizzy. But it was there -- right in front of him and he found himself overwhelmingly glad that he and Mac only sparred after the dojo was closed. It was not that the pair were overwhelmingly physical, although even Richie might expect that much. Methos had been in Paris for close to two weeks, settling his affairs there, Mac diving in to help settle his dealings in Seacouver.

Those dealings had been the first clue Richie had that something had changed unalterably in the relationship between the two older Immortals -- and that friendship was no longer an adequate enough word to cover those changes.

Richie stared at his feet, not wanting to see any intimate displays, schooling his features carefully. Both Mac and Methos were certainly old enough to make their own choices and it was not his place to have a say in what manner or how they conducted their affairs. But he couldn't deny his own shock at finding his teacher and mentor and primary male role-model suddenly involved with another man. Nor could he chalk up his entire reaction to the idea of a homosexual relationship. Richie was neither that naive nor that narrow minded.

The problem then, lay with Mac. Not even Methos, although Richie tried a dozen ways to make it the older Immortal's fault. However, he could and did lay Mac's recent testiness deliberately at Methos' feet.

"Hello, Ryan," the familiar and now irritating accent greeted him and Richie was forced to look up -- to meet the steady hazel eyes and acknowledge the fact that his teacher looked happier than anytime Richie could remember since Tessa's death. Mac stood behind Methos, hands resting lightly on the older man's shoulders and close. Close enough to make Richie uncomfortable. "I didn't realize the circuit was over."

"Just a break. Coupla' weeks. I have to be in North Carolina on the 12th."


"Twelve of fourteen," Mac supplied and there was an undeniable sense of pride in his voice. Richie did smile at that. Mac had been diligent about keeping up with his stats. A congratulatory gift sent on each win and a consolation gift as well, regardless of where Richie was on the circuit.

"I'm impressed. Congratulations," Methos said and sounded sincere but Richie was never sure. "Sorry to interrupt your practice. Keep on. I need a shower and a change of clothes," He added pulling away from Mac but with a smile at the Highlander's sudden frown.

"We were almost done," Richie hastened to say; wanting -- needing and excuse to get away from the reunion that should be happening but wasn't.

"Finish then. I really do need to clean up -- it was a long flight." He slipped away with a bare brush of his mouth on Mac's lips and headed for the elevator.

"We don't need to, Mac. I can come back...or not," Richie said, not even sure MacLeod was paying attention. The Highlander's eyes followed his lover until the slender figure disappeared behind the grate.

"One more pass then," Mac said, dark eyes suddenly fixed on his former student. "Then I'll order dinner. Stay?"

"I don't think--"

"You are not intruding, Richie," MacLeod said gently and Richie was forced once more by his own conscience to meet the even gaze.

"No kidding," Richie said bitterly before he could stop himself then looked away from the shocked gaze on Mac's face.

"You are not comfortable with this...with Methos and I, are you?" Mac began. "This is not Methos' fault --"

"Give me a little credit, would ya', Mac? I doubt you got seduced into anything you didn't want," Richie said and moved away, gathering his things.

"No. I didn't," Mac said. "And I know this takes some getting used to--"

"Not for me. I have no say in your love life," Richie shot back, suddenly, irrationally angry.

"No, but you are part of my life," MacLeod said and Richie realized his friend was right behind him. "I haven't forgotten that."

"Fooled me. Great act, Mac."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means that beating the shit out of me because your pining for your ancient lover isn't a great way to remind me how much I mean to you," Richie said and slung his bag over his shoulder. MacLeod was staring at him, trying to process Richie's words with a totally confused look on his face. It was a confusion that Richie felt echoing in his own soul. Without another word he slammed out of the dojo.

The sound of a motorcycle engine revving made Methos pause as he gathered things for his shower. A look out the window confirmed Richie was leaving and in a rather foul mood by the way he gunned the engine and screeched out of the alley onto the main boulevard.

Weary as he was, getting into the shower now would have been the ultimate act in cowardice and he set the towels aside, opting for a short term cure instead. He had drunk nearly half his beer by the time he heard Mac in the elevator.

"I thought you were going to shower?"

"Well, I would have if I hadn't just seen your protégé peel out of here like a rescue response. Was it me, you or both of us?"

"I'm not sure," Mac said in a truly befuddled voice. "Me, I think. Maybe I should have sent him word."

"Right. 'Telegram: Richie; Have taken a new lover. Stop. It's Methos. Stop. Don't freak out on me. Stop. Love, Mac.' You are not obligated to tell him anything."

"Maybe not, but he deserves better than to be blind-sided," Mac said suddenly cross. "Have you eaten?"


"Do you want me to fix something or shall I call out--"

"I want you to tell me what happened. Not why, just what," Methos said quietly, setting his beer on the coffee table and moving to face MacLeod across the counter.

"I'm glad you're home," Mac said, reining in on his anger.

The thin lips twitched as Methos leaned on the granite counter. "I'm glad to be home. What happened?"

"You aren't going to let go of this are you?"

"Not until you do and I've had a lot longer to practice patience."

"He said I was being extra rough on him because I was pining for you," Mac said after a long pause, while he searched the refrigerator for something vaguely resembling a meal.

"Were you?"

"No! He's gotten sloppy on the circuit. Not practicing enough."

"So you thought you'd whip him back into top fighting form while he takes a break."

"He asked to spar..."

"He could hardly come home and not expect you would want him to take back his role," Methos said.

Mac glared at him. "He's someone I care about. I want him to be--"

"The best? You're the best, Mac. Hard to live up to a legend."

"Well, you would know, wouldn't you?" Mac said sharply then flushed at the snipe. The hazel eyes never wavered. "I just don't want to lose him," Mac amended. "I want him to be as safe as he can be."

"And what does Richie want?"

The question made Mac pause, his lover regarding him calmly and infuriatingly patiently.

"You have no idea, do you?" Methos asked gently. "Step up to the plate, my love. He came home, Mac. The same way I did. Only home isn't the same. And the family he left behind isn't the same either. There have been some changes."

"And you think I'm taking it out on him?"

"No, I think that you are treating him the same way you did after Tessa died. When Annie Devlin was determined to take his handsome head. That overprotective streak of yours surfaces in strange ways, Duncan. It helps if you let people know when it takes over. He was your student, Mac. Not your son, no matter how much you both want him to fit that role. You'd best remember that before the only thing he'll ever be is your student, rather than your friend."

"He is like my son," Mac said defensively.

Methos pushed himself up and stretched. "I know. But he's not. You have no say in his life unless he allows it. Right now, you are still his 'father' as well. But it will change and if you don't have his friendship to fall back on, you will have no say in his life at all."

Methos pushed off from the counter and headed for the bathroom. Not the way he had seen their reunion but not completely unexpected. He and Mac had few discussions about Richie's very prominent position in the Highlander's life -- primarily because the young man had been more or less out of reach for months. But the discussion had been inevitable.

And necessary. Methos would not even contemplate trying to make Mac choose between his student and his lover. No winners there at all. Richie's regard for him mattered very little to the older Immortal except as it pertained to MacLeod.

"Lecture over. Food, at this point, is a good diversion, Mac," he said over his shoulder. "Whatever."

Methos disappeared into the bathroom and for the second time that evening, Duncan MacLeod found himself speechless with confusion and abandoned to his own devices.

"Great advice, old man," Mac grumbled as he pulled out salad and left-overs to put a meal of sorts together. He was irritated at his own domesticity, at taking Methos' advice for a diversion and most of all because his gut was telling him that his lover had been pretty much on target on all points. It was annoying to have someone punch your buttons every time you opened your mouth.

Richie's comments had caught him off guard and stung. Methos' had done nothing but rub salt in the wound as Mac reviewed the last two weeks he had spent in the company of his former student.

Almost all of it had been either sparring or at Joe's and the latter only twice. The first, the night Richie had blown back into town, and the second at Joe's specific invitation. Until tonight, Richie had been sleeping on the couch. Mac had no idea where the young man had gone this evening.

On second thought he did. Listening, he could still hear the water running--and Methos would, no doubt, use up most, if not all, of the hot water in the large capacity heater Mac had installed. He grabbed at the phone and dialed, tucking the receiver against his shoulder as he continued to fix dinner.

Joe answered, the muted sounds of music and people chattering obvious in the background. Not a bad-sized crowd for a weeknight, Mac noted. Noted more since Methos had become part owner and Mac had taken on some of the responsibility for tracking the bar's assets. The silent partner's partner, he mused, momentarily taken aback at just how quickly he and Methos' lives and livelihoods had become entangled and nearly inseparable.

"He hasn't shown yet, Mac," Joe answered to MacLeod's query.

"He may need a place to crash," Mac said. "Methos is home," he offered by way of explanation.

"He's welcome to the guest room," Joe assured him. "Won't be the first time or the last."

Mac had to chuckle at that. "You and I should just go into the hotel business, Joe," he said and got a rough rumble of laughter for his reward. "I, as usual, need a favor, Joe. How do you feel about breakfast?"

"Did something happen?"

"No, actually something didn't happen. I need to fix it," Mac said and was met by more patient silence. The patience of his friends was becoming truly frustrating. "I need to make sure Richie knows we're friends first," Mac said all too aware Methos had emerged in time to hear the admission.

There was a chuckle. "There's hope for you yet, Highlander," Joe said approvingly. "If he shows and stays I can probably convince him. Walston's?" Joe suggested.

"Good enough. Nine-thirty late enough?"

"No. but I'll make an exception," Joe said and then, "Gotta' go. Your friend just showed up." He rang off and Mac hung up the phone, resignedly turning to face the smug look he knew would be on Methos' face.

Only it wasn't. Methos reached out for a taste of the cold salad Mac had prepared, eyes down. "You need to work this out with Richie, Mac. Joe and I shouldn't be there," he said. Mac thought about it then covered the slender fingers with his own.

"Maybe, but you said two things that decided this. Home and Family: That includes you and Joe."

"That's a lot to take on for a young man who has never really had either -- except what you and Tessa offered. Suddenly being thrust into that kind of gathering can be unnerving."

"The voice of experience," Mac asked, twining his fingers through his lover's.

"If you like," Methos said and lifted his troubled eyes to his lover's. "I can be pretty damn selfish sometimes, Mac. This may well be one of those times. I won't make you choose but I can't help wondering what the choice will be."

MacLeod was stunned and hurt. Even more than Richie's reaction, Methos' words cut him deeply. "Why would you even think there would be a choice?"

"Because there is. There always will be -- there always has been." Methos shifted uncomfortably under the darkening gaze. He hated this, hated what he was doing and hated even more that eventually Duncan would figure out why. "I know I am not a convenient fuck, Mac. I know that with every heartbeat. I know you love me and I certainly hope you know I love you after all we've been through. But you and I both know that love is not enough -- not alone. Not ever."

The broad dark hand closed over Methos' unbearably tightly and he concentrated on the minor pain letting that give him clarity as the emotions in Mac's face ranged from anger to hurt to fear and back again at every word.

"You honestly think I would choose Richie over you?" Mac asked harshly.

"No, Mac. I think you will choose love over friendship. Which means that someday I will lose you, too. There's a reason why Immortals rarely fall in love with one another. There's a reason why you and Amanda aren't together now. And it's not me."

MacLeod suddenly released his hand, the handsome face set and settled on anger. "So much for trust. If Gina and Robert can stay married--"

"We aren't married, Mac. We are lovers. There is a huge difference." Gods, this hurts. He kept his face as impassive as possible. MacLeod had gotten very good at reading him and a miscalculation now would cost more than Methos was sure he was willing to pay.

"What the hell is the difference?" Mac demanded, flinging himself away from the counter to lean against the range as if being so close were painful.

"Why didn't you marry Tessa?" Stone cold son of a bitch, you are, Methos grated at himself.

"I asked her--"

"Why didn't you ask her sooner?"

"You know why!" Mac had moved back into hurt again. "Dragging her into the Game--"

"She was already in. Being with you ensured that. Why, Mac? Have you ever really thought about it?"

"Why drag Tessa into this? You didn't even know her."

Because you are a stubborn Scot. "Because Tessa is the only link you and Richie have if all else fails," Methos said and waited. The response was not unexpected but it still hurt. Homecoming had just become a nightmare.

Mac said not a word as he grabbed his coat and sword and headed out. It was an improvement over sarcasm and harsh words but not by much and Methos winced as the outside door slammed.

He knew MacLeod. He knew every twisted working of the otherwise simple but not idiotic mind. Methos nibbled on a piece of lettuce but his appetite had vanished. His fatigue had not and he felt far more emotionally wrenched than physically tired at the moment. Needing something to do he put the food away, wondering if he had not miscalculated after all. His original lecture to Mac had been sincere, but under the shower, with at least some of his fatigue washed away he realized MacLeod's real problem was not with Richie at all.

It was with himself -- with the choices he made. Duncan MacLeod had remained close to the mortal fringe for long enough to immerse himself in the short term ideals of the short lived race. After Jacob Galatti's death Mac had demanded Methos decide if he were Immortal or Watcher. It was possible to be both Methos had realized after several agonizing weeks.

Just as it was possible to be a man and Immortal.

Now, if Mac could somehow come to realize that himself.

The kitchen cleaned up Methos sat down to wait. Sleep seemed unlikely but the book he picked up fell from lax fingers less than fifteen minutes later.

The urge to kill Methos had been about equal to the urge to kiss him into understanding. Time to think, alone. MacLeod barely had those thoughts as he left the loft. He had been tense over the last couple of weeks. Missing Methos was not something he expected to come at him so forcibly -- especially knowing his lover was due to return fairly quickly. Joy at seeing Richie had obscured the first few days of the loss but Mac had to admit that it had been a temporary relief at best. Nearly losing the older Immortal to Abraham Holly's vicious plan had been enough to scare Mac to death -- or nearly so. Wrenching an admission of love from Methos had been nearly as frightening.

Sparring with Richie had seemed like a reasonable cure. Only the younger Immortal had been exercising other skills rather than his sword play and Mac had been haunted by the idea that someone as good as Holly might take the younger Immortal on -- and win.

He cursed loudly as he walked, glance slipping over the river without really seeing the water. He hated it when Methos was right. Well, not really, but he was so damned infuriatingly right about some things. Experience no doubt.

It hurt to think his lover had so little faith in him -- or so much. Mac wasn't sure which one really applied. And why had Methos settled on Tessa as a point of the discussion? Worse, why couldn't he answer Methos question?

He had thought about asking Tessa to marry him a dozen times during their relationship. When he finally made the decision it had been too late. He hadn't know it but in less than a week she was gone, the opportunity lost. He didn't know that anything would have changed in their lives had she lived long enough to be his wife. He had asked as much because he knew she wanted it as for himself. He wanted that commitment -- wanted to make it.

Methos was challenging his ability to commit. Wasn't he? Choose between he and Richie? Between friendship and love?

How could Methos even think there was a choice?

I think you will choose love over friendship. Which means that someday I will lose you too.

He stopped, the words sinking in for the first time. Reading between the lines he found the answer Methos had been guiding him toward.

"Son of a bitch," he swore, not at Methos but at himself. Selfish my ass, he thought turning and heading back to the loft. Crafty, manipulative, infuriating ancient. Life is all about choices -- Methos said it often enough for Mac to stop hearing it.

"There's hope for you yet," he said aloud, echoing Joe's words. His smile returned as he saw lights still on in the windows of the loft and hurried home.

Mac's arrival woke Methos to a moment's panic then settled again as he recognized his lover's signature. A glance at the clock brought a smile to his face. Mac had beaten Methos' best estimate by a good couple of hours.

He twisted on the sofa, resting his arms on the back to watch the Highlander enter.

"You are a pain in the ass," Mac said striding across the room intent unswerving. His hands came out to frame Methos' face as he bent to give his lover a devastating kiss that wiped the last bit of sleep from the older Immortal's brain.

"No choices," Mac said when he finally broke the kiss. He reached inside his shirt collar to pull out the filigreed iron ring, slipping it over Methos' middle finger where the mate rested. "Marry me?" he said, eyes dancing.

Methos chuckled and drew himself up to his knees. "Sure. You have to wear the dress though," he cautioned. "Figured it out did you?"

"With a little help and a nasty kick," Mac said tucking his pendant back in his shirt as he sat on the back of the sofa. "How could I have that with Amanda and not see it with you or Richie?" he asked, fingers filtering through the soft silk of Methos' hair.

"Because she is older than you. Because she is Immortal and because she is a woman, Mac," Methos said softly. "Four hundred years has offered you some remarkable insights but not made you all-knowing."

"Like certain ancient Immortals?"

"I don't know it all. I just know more. I'm not always right, Mac. Not about you. You defy the model most of the time."

Mac studied the gold-green eyes, unguarded and completely focused on him and him alone. "You really wouldn't be jealous if I renewed my relationship with Amanda, would you?"

"Only if you were doing it to hurt me -- which you wouldn't. Sex as a weapon isn't your style, Highlander," Methos said with a grin. "I don't claim exclusivity. I can only offer it. Because I want it that way."

"If you change your mind, just give me a head's up, okay?" Mac said seriously. "I'm just barely able to grasp the concept."

"Promised and done," Methos murmured and kissed him thoroughly to seal the promise.

"I won't be able to use the same arguments with Richie," Mac said, rising as Methos did, arms slipping around the slender waist.

"You won't have to. He's not an idiot, Mac. Anymore than you are. But he is still closer to his mortality. That won't fade until he's outlived a few people." He settled his arms around his love's neck. " to him. Tell him why you push so hard. He'll figure out the jealousy part himself."

"God, I hope so. I don't want to lose him, Methos." Hands slipped up along Methos' back in comfort and question, both giving and needing reassurance.

"You can't lose him, love," Methos said softly, mouth seeking Mac's throat. "He can only walk away; his choice, not yours."

Mac relaxed into the gentle invitation of his lover's caresses then pulled him close. "Not quite the welcome home you expected."

"I'm sure you'll find a way to compensate me," Methos said huskily then chuckled softly as the broad hands slipped from his back to grip his buttocks, Mac pulling his hips forward tightly against his groin.

"I'm open to negotiations," the Highlander said already examining his choices. 

Not one to pass up a free meal, Richie had agreed to Joe's invitation despite a late night. He had stayed at the bar until it closed, listening to the music, flirting with waitresses and female patrons alike and drinking more than he ought to have. He had regretted his harsh words to Mac almost immediately upon saying them. The distance between he and his mentor had been growing steadily over the last couple of years but Richie had thought they were making progress when Mac continued to support his pursuit of a career in racing.

But it seemed distance made the heart fonder only if the distance were maintained. He had drunk too much beer primarily to drown out the wash of guilt he felt for begrudging Mac one moment of happiness, no matter whose company he found it in. The guilt deepened when a few hesitantly answered questions caught him up on exactly what Mac had been doing over the past year or so. None of it was particularly pretty even though Joe supplied few details -- deferring to Mac for the rest of the story.

Only Richie wasn't sure he wanted to know. That made him feel worse. He should have been there for MacLeod. But Mac hadn't asked, which made Richie doubt if there was much of their friendship left to salvage. He wasn't sure he wanted Mac to be solely in mentor role again -- not when he knew or thought he knew what more there could have been.

Could have been. An opportunity had passed him somewhere and he had missed it. The race circuit didn't exactly lend itself to close friendships. The pit crews were fun but they stayed with the tracks. Coming to Seacouver had been an opportunity where the people he cared about stayed.

Only they did change when you weren't looking.

"Early in the morning for deep thoughts, Rich," Joe commented after the waitress at Walston's took their order. The diner perched on the edge of the bay and Richie nodded, eyes avoiding Joe's by studying the boats moving toward the ocean.

"Give me some coffee and my brain will idle back to neutral," Richie responded with a faint smile. "Early for you too," he observed then went still as the signature of an Immortal passed through him.

"Relax, Rich. Friends," Joe said softly, all too familiar with the Look -- not to mention having seen the T-Bird pull into the parking lot.

"Am I being set up?" Richie said twisting to see Mac and Methos enter the diner. They weren't touching but Richie was already primed to see the intimacy and he flushed. Embarrassment gave way to anger as he saw the look on his Mentor's face.

"Yep," Joe said with a grin. "By pro's. You might as well just give in."

"I don't care who Mac is sleeping with," Richie hissed.

"Good," Joe said and Richie scowled at the grin on the Watcher's face. "Then it won't be an issue."

"Oh, you guys are just a triple-threat," Richie said getting to his feet. "Thanks, but no thanks. I had enough of the gang mentality as a kid," he said. His expression was pure venom both in the look he shot at Mac and Methos and the set of his jaw.

"We're not ganging up on you," MacLeod said.

"Check the definition, Mac. Three to one definitely equals a gang," the younger man said, pushing past him. Mac rolled his eyes and gripped Richie's upper arm.

"Fine. Then how about one on one?" he asked and without giving Richie a chance to comment pulled him to the exit.

"You are taking this all very calmly," Joe commented with a wry grin as Methos slid his long frame into the booth seat, nodding when the waitress brought him a cup of coffee. "You know, one of these days one of your schemes is going to backfire on you."

Methos looked up at the aging Watcher sharply to find Joe watching him with a mixture of speculation and respect on the weathered features. "You think I engineered this?"

"I think you had a heavy hand in it . Well, maybe not heavy. Why? You don't give two figs about Richie."

"Not true, Joe. I have nothing against the child," Methos said sipping at his coffee and leaning back so he could watch MacLeod and Ryan through the window.

Joe followed his glance but shifted his gaze back to the older Immortal. It still struck him as odd when Methos referred to anyone as a child when his own countenance placed him not too much older than Richie -- at times. Not so at the moment, however. Methos would never look his role as an ancient but there were times when Joe wondered how any man could bear up under the weight of five thousand years and still have any room for decency. Madness was not unknown among Immortals much younger than the slender man he shared his coffee with and Methos had certainly had his moments in time when modern convention would mark him as much less than sane. There was a stilling calmness about his companion, though; a quiet before the storm that Joe wondered if he would live to see break.

It was not a thought or an occurrence he looked forward to observing. And he was confused about Methos' sudden concern for MacLeod's protégé. Other than his relationship with the Highlander, Joe could discern nothing that Ryan might offer to the oldest living man. There were easy acquaintances, one of the youngest in the Immortal community and the oldest, but not friends. At the core of Methos' being was a fierce will to survive and Joe saw nothing in Richie that would assist or support that will. He was mildly surprised the two had not come to blows already, Richie's hot-headedness an easy mark for Methos' cynical barbs and sharp words.

Even Methos' relationship with MacLeod did not explain his forbearance to Joe's satisfaction. That Methos was making an effort at all, even for Duncan's benefit, disturbed him more than if Methos had let the topic, and the student, go.

"Spit it out, Joe. Before it chokes you," Methos said mildly his attention having shifted back from his lover to his mortal friend and business partner.

"Why is it so important to you that Mac and Richie patch up their relationship?"

"Because it is important to Mac."

"Not good enough," Joe said and was startled when Methos dropped his gaze to his cup.

"Ryan is good. He is also hot headed and impetuous. He has little discipline and less judgment. He won't make it to the end, Joe. I'm surprised he has made it this far. When he goes, I don't want Mac grieving over his failure as either a teacher or a friend."

"You sound like it's inevitable."

"I think it is. Anyone born this late in the game is at a serious disadvantage, Joe. There is not enough time to prepare."

Joe fell silent, weighing the words. Weighing the thoughts behind the words. "How can you know, so absolutely?" he asked softly, a growing suspicion in his mind. "What do you know?"

"Speculation, Joe. That's all it is," Methos responded meeting the Watcher's hard stare with one of his own. "And if I wanted the Watcher's to know all that I do, I'd have found a way to slip it into somebody's journal. And if I thought my friend, Joe Dawson, needed to know, I'd have found a way to tell him as well. Don't press it, Joe."

"You throw a carrot like that in front of me and expect me to back off?"

"I didn't throw it, Joe, you dug it up. Watch don't interfere, unless you want someone with less restraint than Jack Shapiro to hold another gun to your head. But I will tell you this much, Joe, because you do need to know. Watchers aren't the only one watching."

Methos sat back, the intensity of his gaze fading as if it had never been, troubled gaze sliding once more to his lover.

"What happened in Paris?" Joe asked softly.

Methos shook his head and remained silent, leaving Joe suddenly chilled and wondering just how many friendships and lives Methos was trying to save.

And wondering if his was one of them. 

As annoyed as Richie was at Mac's manhandling him, he made no further protest until they were outside, quite certain that Mac would put him on his ass if he didn't listen. He did manage to jerk his arm free once they stopped.

"What is it with you?" he demanded, meeting Duncan's dark eyed gaze evenly.

"You are the hardest person in the world to apologize to, Rich," Mac said in exasperation.

It was not what Richie had been expecting. He had expected to be lectured about his attitude or any of a half dozen other transgressions he could tick off immediately in his brain.

"One more time?" he demanded.

"I came to apologize -- for a lot of things but primarily because you deserved better than the treatment you've gotten," Mac said quietly and suddenly couldn't look at Richie anymore. "I broke something when I nearly killed you, Rich. I shattered a trust. The reasons don't matter. The Dark Quickening wasn't your fault anymore than it was mine, and when it looked like we had patched most of it when I took Clay, I let it slide again. Not fair to either of us. I am not your father, Richie. No matter how much I would like to be and I wanted that...want that fantasy more than you can possibly know."

Richie felt his chest tighten. Too late! It's too late, his mind screamed but part of him hung onto those words like a lifeline, Mac's admission cutting through his confusion like a pure white light in the darkness.

"But since we can't have that, I want what we can have. What we have had up until recently," Mac continued, shifting his gaze to Richie once more -- no doubt in Richie's mind at all that his mentor was fighting for every word. "I didn't tell you about Methos because it seemed separate from what you and I have. From our friendship. But it's not. It can't be. I can't exclude you from parts of my life and expect you to understand when the other parts of my life affect us. You came home, Richie. You thought you had. I can't be your protector, anymore. And, it seems, my ability to teach you anything has suffered as well. My fault, not yours."

"That's not true!" Richie's lips formed the protest before his brain quite registered what he was protesting. "Mac, I don't care who you sleep with. Or who Methos was a surprise but ...Okay. It was a big surprise," he amended and felt the first honest smile he'd worn in far too long overtake his face. "I just wanted...I missed you, Mac. I miss having someone a shit whether I live or die."

It was an admission he hadn't meant to make. It was a loss he hadn't recognized within himself until he spoke it.

"I give a shit, Rich. I always have. I always will," Mac said gently, broad hand coming up to knead the taut muscles of his younger friend's neck. "I pushed too hard because I give a shit. But your life is your own -- being on the circuit is a dream you have Richie. Being Immortal complicates it but dreams keep us going."

"Breezing into town sounded like a good idea," Richie said softly, staring out at the bay. "I knew you would give me a hard time, lecture me. Demand to know all the details. I wanted it, Mac. I still do. I should have asked you as well. I got the basics from Joe but not the details. Sounds like you and Methos have had an interesting few months. It never lets up for you does it?"

"Not often. Not recently," Mac said, dropping his hand. "Which means when I have time with my friends I need to take advantage of it -- it means I need to make time for them. I should have made time for you and I haven't."

"Works both ways," Richie murmured and they both fell silent but not uncomfortably. The tightness was gone and the anger. Not quite sure what to do next, Richie moved away to lean on the rail staring over the water. MacLeod followed putting his back to it to study his young friend.

"So, what do you want to know?" Mac asked him, smile quirking at the corner of his lips.

Richie smiled as well, cutting his eyes at his friend. "Yesterday, when you dumped me on my ass for the thousandth time. I think I figured it out. Want to try again after breakfast?"

Mac nodded, smile breaking wider then giving way to laughter as he wrapped his arm around Richie's neck and pulled him close. "Dumping you on your ass is my favorite pastime, Rich," he chuckled against the red-gold hair.

"Well, that looks like it went well," Methos murmured watching the pair from the window. Joe followed his gaze, glad to see both the Scot and his protégé grinning. His gaze shifted once more to the older Immortal's face, half-expecting to see a certain justified smugness there and was surprised to see Methos looking rather young and saddened --or envious, Joe amended.

"It's good to see them laughing again," Joe said casually.

"Mac's friends are important to him," Methos agreed.

"And you are not?"

The wistful expression faded to be replaced by a cool speculation and a harder gaze, one that banished that youthful expression back into the ages.

"Trying to cause trouble, Joe? Or just pushing for information."

"Trying to figure you out," Joe said honestly. "Adam, I know you love Mac," he said softly. "And if he doesn't return the sentiment, then I am my own maiden aunt. What I don't understand is if you know this, why you seem so certain it's all going to fall apart? Richie included."

The perceptions of the Watcher's observations made Methos acutely uncomfortable. How to tell Joe what he could not tell Mac? There was no choice -- and no options and the burden of secrecy was silence.

But Joe was asking as his friend as well as Mac's watcher and that delicate balance could be easily shifted -- dangerously shifted. It was on the tip of his tongue to offer up more illusions, more teasing if only because a part of him desperately wanted to share his burden. But his burden could easily get Joe killed or Mac or himself.

"Because nothing lasts forever, Joe. Not even for Immortals," he said and slipped from the booth before Joe could formulate another thought.

The sense of Methos' presence struck both Mac and Richie -- the tension abating almost immediately when the lean form emerged to wait by the restaurant door.

"I don't get it..." Richie murmured then blushed to the tips of his ears when he realized he'd spoken out loud, his eyes clearly fixed on the oldest Immortal.

Mac seemed unperturbed, his own eyes settling on the slender man and Richie watched the dark eyes go soft and a smile curve his friend's lips. "I don't either, Rich. And I don't really expect or care if other people understand. Including you. But I won't shut you out. If you can accept this then the rest is easy."

"Mac, I meant it when I said I don't care who you sleep with...but it does take some getting used to. You loved Tessa, didn't you?"

The confusion in his young friend's tone caught Mac's attention and he re-focused on Richie for a moment. "Aye. More than I can tell you. And I love Methos, too. Some ways the same, some ways different," Mac said slowly, realizing he had never admitted that to anyone but Methos before. "And Joe was right. It hasn't been easy, or pleasant all the time. I nearly lost him, Rich. I came that close," his voice had dropped to a whisper and Richie reached out unconsciously to grip his mentor's shoulder in sympathy. "Almost lost him because of who I am...who he is. What we are. I don't want to lose him, Rich. Not as a friend, not as a lover -- but there may come a time when I have no choice. Until then I plan on enjoying what we do have and trying to find a way to make it work. I waited too long for Tessa. I almost waited too long for you."

"If I burst in to tears in front of him, Mac, I will never forgive you," Richie said huskily. Mac laughed and put his arm around the younger man, turning them both to head back across the parking lot. Joe had emerged behind Methos, the two of them waiting for the pair.

"You burst into tears in front of him and he will most likely run away in total horror," Mac said. "And give me hell about it later."

Richie nodded and observed the slender Immortal. The face was schooled to impassivity, the faintest smile on the thin lips. Richie was lousy at reading people but there was a certain satisfaction in the older Immortal's expression.

Son of a bitch! Richie thought as Mac propelled him forward. Methos had "arranged" this -- planned it. Not that what Mac had said was not heart felt and honest, but Richie knew the Highlander's pride as well as anyone -- better than most. Somehow, for some reason, Methos had managed to work around that pride, to close the distance between teacher and student.

Richie could not even begin to fathom why his happiness would mean so much to the seemingly indifferent oldest Immortal.

Richie opted to continue staying with Joe, the barkeep offering when things looked to turn awkward again, but he promised to meet with Mac at their usual time, coming earlier enough for dinner.

"I feel like I'm treating him as an out of town guest," Mac commented as he pulled out of the parking lot.

Methos bit back a sigh of frustration and slipped lower in the seat, staring out the window. Mac and Richie would work it out, he was certain. His own thoughts were traveling along an entirely different path and he cursed himself for his own stupidity at having let Joe Dawson ferret out what should have remained hidden. Not Joe's fault as much as he would like to lay the blame at his friend's feet. Joe was a talented investigator and a canny interrogator but he hadn't gotten anything from Methos' comments that Methos had not let slip. What he wasn't too sure of was why he had let them slip.

"You get much farther away and I'll have to pay long distance bills," Mac commented and Methos started. Mac was dividing his attention between the road and his lover.

You are slipping. Get your act together! Methos berated himself. "Contemplating eternity, Mac," he said with a smile.

"Right. Pull the other one, Methos. What's going on? Joe looked none too happy."

"Joe has a suspicious mind," Methos said sourly as Mac pulled into the alley behind the dojo to park the car.

Methos was out of the vehicle before another question could be asked but Mac was just as fast, halting him before he reached the stairs leading to the loft. "What are you trying to fix, now?" Mac demanded. He was not angry nor was his tone accusing.

"Nothing!" Methos said all innocence. "He's concerned about Richie is all. And you. Can you blame him?"

MacLeod still looked uncertain but there was enough doubt in his mind not to want to pursue the line of questions into an argument. "You're okay then, with Richie--"

Methos had to laugh at that. Mac was working overtime trying to make sure everyone was taken care of, physically, emotionally, mentally. He was like to give himself a stroke.

"Mac, I am fine with Richie wherever he his, what ever he does. He could stay here for all I care -- but I am not giving up the bed!" he warned and was rewarded by a grin and a darkening set to Mac's eyes.

"I wasn't offering him that either -- but the couch."

"We'd have to be quiet. Not something you excel at," Methos teased, glad Mac had been distracted as he started up the steps. His own sense of humor rose at the sudden picture of Richie occupying the sofa while Mac -- the poor boy would get no sleep. Might be fun at that. Driving Mac crazy while the Highlander tried to keep quiet would be quite the challenge.

"You are evil," Mac said, slipping up the stairs beside him.

"When necessary," Methos agreed with a grin. "And motivated."

A quick and bruising embrace was his momentary reward, followed by an equally swift kiss. "Maybe we should get it out of our systems before Rich shows up," Mac suggested with only a hint of sarcasm.

Methos snorted. "You never get it out of your system, Mac. If I didn't know better I would swear you and Ryan are related."

"Is that a complaint?"

"No. Just an observation," Methos said shedding his coat as they entered the Loft.

Mac took it from him, ensuring it would get hung up rather then cast on the nearest chair, eyes following Methos as his lover threw himself onto the sofa. The older Immortal rubbed his face with his hands, eyes closing as he stretched like a cat settling in for a nap.

It was also the most obvious 'do not disturb' sign MacLeod had ever seen, no longer willing to be put off by Methos' diversions. Without a word he slipped onto the sofa, lifting his lover's legs and settling them across his thighs. Methos cracked one eye open and caught the expectant gaze the younger Immortal cast him.

"There is nothing to tell," Methos said evenly.

"Mmm hmmm," Mac answered.

"Christ, MacLeod, if you are looking for the secrets to the universe, you need to find another guru," Methos said and pulled free, surging of the sofa in a burst of energy that did nothing but confirm Mac's suspicions. His lover was exceedingly agitated about something.

But perhaps it had less to do with Richie than MacLeod thought. "How was Paris?" he asked.


"Things all settled?"


"Do you have to go back?"

The counter top seemed of intense interest to Methos. "Maybe. Not soon."

"You do know there has to be some give and take in this relationship," Mac said evenly and watched the guarded mask slip back over Methos' face. "If there is something bothering you..."

"Duncan, do us both a favor and leave it alone. Remind yourself that there are things that you do not want to know," Methos said softly.

"And if I press?"

He was met with silence.

"Methos..." Mac started getting to his feet only to have his lover back away slightly.

"Mac, have you ever been in the priesthood? I mean I know you spent some time with Paul in the monastery but did you take any vows?"

"No, but I know what vows mean," Mac said cautiously.

"Then believe this...understand this...There are promises I have made that I will not break. That I dare not. And if you try to put my promises to you against these others, I honestly don't know which ones will hold," Methos said softly, hazel eyes wide and open, unguarded. Methos rarely asked MacLeod for anything and the one thing he did ask was the hardest for Mac to grant. Trust.

"'He who breaks faith with one master, can not be trusted to keep faith with another,'" Mac quoted softly.

"Something like that, yes." He turned away, searching in the refrigerator for no particular reason except to avoid Mac's gaze.

"If I guess, will you lie to me?"

The lean body went still. "About this?" he said after a moment. "Yes. Not about anything else."

"Qualified truths?" Mac demanded, voice going cold.

Methos closed the refrigerator door. "Not my truths to share, Mac," he said resolutely.

Mac was seething. He understood the promise, knew it was unreasonable to ask Methos to surrender up something that didn't belong to him in the first place. But his feelings didn't know that. "Threaten your life if you tell?" he snapped out.

He got no confirmation or denial, only more silence. Without another word he pushed away from the counter before he said something he would regret and headed out. Right now he wanted company, and it wasn't Methos'

Methos did not flinch as the outside door slammed. He reacted not at all for long moments, dispassionately feeling parts of himself shut down. The anger, the hurt, the guilt -- all of it began closing down one section at a time. Understanding Mac's anger did little to halt the process. He kept demanding Mac's trust but when push came to shove, he failed the test himself more often than not.

If he felt a certain righteousness in keeping his secrets, it was a bitter prize. Odd how it had never really seemed to be so before. Maybe because all his prior lies had been for his own salvation, preservation of his own life. Having the proverbial knife not to his throat but to MacLeod's or Joe's or even young Ryan's was an uncomfortable feeling. Methos detested being held hostage to anything. Bargaining for his own life was one thing -- a talent he'd had millennia of practice at -- bargaining for the lives of others was something he felt singularly ill-equipped to do.

And keeping ahead of this particular game was proving more and more difficult the more his life became tangled in the lives of others. With a sigh he pushed away from the counter and reached for the phone. The number was entered and his pass-code and then he waited.

"Marcus, we need to talk. Face to face. I have a favor," he said, body tensing as he embarked on yet another bargain that was likely to cost him a part of his soul.

Joe Dawson considered himself a fairly reasonable man; an intelligent man, a cautious man. Why he was suddenly driven to toss those attributes out the window was beyond him but it had become a dangerous precedent of late.

His non-discussion with Methos bothered him. Bothered him because it had obviously disturbed Methos. Tracking the twistings of that ancient brain was often more than Joe could handle -- the mere thought making his own head hurt.

Methos knew something -- something about the Gathering. And his comment about unseen observers disturbed Joe more than he really wanted to admit: A secret society watching a secret race of people who were also being secretly watched. Joe suddenly got a glimpse of how uncomfortable it was for the Immortals who knew of the Watchers. The idea that someone knew him, his name, what he did day to day, the motives for their observations unclear, made his skin crawl.

Methos was tied to all three. It shouldn't surprise him that the oldest of all peoples might have ferreted out secrets or mysteries Joe could not begin to fathom. What did bother him was that he got the distinct impression that Methos was a reluctant participant in the unknown third group. Pressed into service under duress, against his own best instincts for survival.

And apparently willing to put himself at some risk for whatever reason.

His thoughts were interrupted by the entry of a visitor/patron of the bar and Joe felt himself tensing at the stormy expression on MacLeod's face. Having dropped Richie of at his house so the young Immortal could pick up his motorcycle, Joe was just as glad. After their reconciliation, he wasn't sure Richie could withstand another one of Mac's darker moods.

"Coffee, beer or something stronger?" Joe asked, setting his own concerns aside as he often did.

"I want answers," Mac snapped and then stopped himself. "I'm sorry, Joe. I will settle for something stronger," he added as Joe acknowledged his apology with a nod and pulled out a bottle -- very early in the day for MacLeod. He was incredibly agitated. He hesitated then drew two mugs of coffee and added the whisky to those instead.

"Well, you seem to be fine with Richie. As far as I know, you and I aren't at each other 's throats so that leaves a certain mysterious older Immortal," Joe surmised and saw the expression darken again on the handsome face.

"Mysterious. Good term. And what little mysteries did he reveal to you over eggs and coffee?" MacLeod asked, sipping at his coffee.

"Nothing. And I mean that, Mac. But, had he said something I probably wouldn't tell you unless he said I could," he added with a hint of irritation. "I take it this is more than a lover's spat?" he asked.

MacLeod nodded. "The man has more secrets than sense, sometimes," Mac said, less angry than frustrated at the moment. "Something is bothering him, something he can't ...won't trust me with. Or you, apparently."

Joe glanced down, wondering how much of this turmoil Methos had actually intended. "So he said. But there's more," he murmured. "Mac, I really don't know anything, except that what ever it is, I don't think Methos is any too happy about it. And I think the reason he can't tell you is that it would put you at risk. That's pretty much what he told me."

"What started it? The conversation?"

"Richie. I asked him why having you and Richie remain friends was important. I didn't much care for his answer."

"Which was?" Mac asked, his voice going dangerously quiet.

In for a penny, in for a pound, Joe thought heavily. "Something about the Game; that Richie was born too late to survive it, but that he didn't want you to feel like you hadn't given Rich the best shot at surviving you could. He's trying to protect you, Mac. And me as well. I just don't know what or who from."

Whatever Mac had been expecting, Joe's answer was not it.

"From who?" Mac breathed. Threaten your life if you tell? Methos hadn't answered. It was not a threat Methos' life -- but a threat to his, to Joe, to Richie. Mac had seen the results of Methos when he was fighting for something important to him: Five-thousand years of survival tactics got tossed out the window.

"Not again," he whispered. "What did he say, Joe? All of it," Mac asked and Joe found himself answering not to the question but to the fear that suddenly haunted the Highlander's face. The fear that echoed what he had felt earlier but been unwilling to identify.

Time for a note was all Methos had. His flight left in an hour and he stuffed his bag with a change of clothes and a couple of pieces of fruit. He would not have time to pick up any food.

He took a heavier coat than the weather demanded -- the climate was like to be colder. He tried to fasten the metal buckles on his pack and he found his hands shaking. He closed the fingers tightly, clenching his jaw until the involuntary tremors stilled.

God, how he had hoped Kronos and Caspian and Silas would be the last. He had considered the debt paid, the card punched full. But it was not so. A life for a life, that was the bargain. Three to save one. He regretted their deaths not at all, nor saving Cassandra's, although he doubted Mac would ever believe why. He was fairly certain Mac thought him still in love with her and he was content to leave it that way. Love. Guilt. The explanation didn't matter. Explaining the real reason would expose him to more questions than he wanted to answer.

His hands stilled and he finished his packing and slung the bag over his shoulder. He glanced at the note, knowing how utterly inadequate it was. He would not be surprised if Mac refused to see him again. What cost? What price? Bargaining chips he no longer had the desire to use.

He was almost out the door when he felt Mac. For a half second he thought he could make it but he faltered and knew he looked as guilty as he felt when Mac entered. A sweeping gaze took in the note, the bag, the coat -- the exit. Without a word, Mac picked up the note and glanced at it.

"You couldn't tell me you needed time to think to my face?" Mac asked but the anger Methos expected was markedly absent.

"Not without explanations I can't give you, Mac," Methos said quietly. "Don't ask me to."

MacLeod nodded. "Okay. I won't. Is this likely to get you killed?"

"No. Not even close," Methos said, harboring the irony of the question to himself like a bitter prize.

"Is it to keep me from being killed, or Richie or Joe?"

You talk too much, old man, Methos shook his head. "Not exactly. Forestall a few...Mac, I can't explain this. Not and make you understand."

"You can't refuse? Whatever you've been asked to do -- you feel you can't refuse. Why?" Mac asked.

Methos closed his eyes. "I would if I could. I did for two centuries, but no. Not this time. Not really." It was a poor lie and Mac knew it.

"Are you coming back?"

"Yes. If you will let me," Methos said. By way of answer, Mac closed the distance between them and gripped Methos' arms. The kiss started almost brutally but gentled quickly as MacLeod tried to sear the memory of his lover's taste and feel and scent into his brain. Methos let the bag drop and answered with all the passion he could, breaking away finally to kiss his lover's neck. "A day or so, Mac. That's all. Someday I will explain but it won't be soon. Enjoy your time with Richie."

"Because I won't have much?" Mac asked huskily.

"No," Methos hissed, gripping Mac's shoulders tightly. "You will have all the time you need if I have anything at all to say about it. I swear," he added more softly.

MacLeod was reluctant to let him go but he did, fingertips the last thing that touched as Methos shoulder his bag and left.