Sheathing Fate
by Maygra de Rhema

continued from chapter one, part one...

"Il et n'est, le divine enfante! Joyeux haboit, resonne musetta!"

Christmas carols in September? I don't understand...

"Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques, Dormez vous? Dormez vous?"

Not Christmas carols. Children's songs - children singing. The words mangled and yet familiar as only children could manage. The feel was of ice in the air, of laughter and sharp clear scents. Scents that were overlaid with a far more familiar scent - the coppery scent of blood, the bitter acrid smell of gunpowder and horses, soft cries of the wounded and dying or just the terrified. And like an unreal counterpart to all of it was the sound of children singing, high voices raising over the battlefield. He tracked the sound and found them - children and adults, moving amidst the dead, scavenging what they could from men who no longer required anything. They were all ragged, the poverty of their clothes a sharp contrast to the mish-mash of blue and red uniforms dotting the hillside like so many discarded Christmas parcels.

He felt weary and ached, realizing for the first time the burden he carried. With a startled gentleness he eased the man down only to discover his gentleness was unnecessary. The comrade he carried was dead.

What a total waste! he thought, scanning the battlefield, the human vultures, the children who pranced about like tiny skeletons, excited by a bit of bright cloth or a warm cloak.

His disgust rose and he turned away, shedding the bright red coat he wore and taking up a less conspicuous cloak of grey wool, blood sodden but serviceable. The fighting had moved. He should be able to slip behind the lines and make his way out of this war-torn hell with little problem. Anyone that challenged him would find themselves dying for not-so-noble a cause.

A dozen steps and another of his kind approached -- he went tense, hand reaching for the sword he wore, cursing at its unfamiliarity.

"Not such a worthy cause," a softly, accented voice said to him. "You have nothing to fear from me..."

"I am...," he faltered, unable to remember his name or exactly where he was or how he had come to be here. That total void of thought struck him like a killing blow and he dropped, the strange Immortal's hands reaching for him in concern.

"Are you injured? What..." a hiss of pain escaped the man as his hands were suddenly caught in a vise-like grip.

"Who are you? Who...who am I? Do you know me?" The demand was near desperate and the cold edged-voice dangerous.

"No. I do not know you for all that I have been watching you. My name is Darius," green eyes met his evenly.

St. Joseph's was silent...too silent, as if the church's ancient age had settled too heavily on the stone. "Darius? Darius!" his calls went unheeded, unanswered and he was slow to notice the disarray of the chairs, the coppery scent, until he saw the headless body.

"What a waste..."

That whispered voice, reaching his ears from across the back of the booth behind his own. "Darius is dead."

"I know," he answered but he should not have known. The shock of finding the body should have been more, should it not?

"This will play merry havoc with the game, Pierson," the voice continued.

Pierson? Adam Pierson...Methos...he surged back into his own memories, his own mind, with a gasp, choking on the sudden bile that rose in his throat as the physical caught up with the mental.

Blackness assaulted him but it was not the blackness of unconsciousness but of night, the silvered moon obscured behind heavy clouds which even now were being whipped to a frenzy by an elemental show not unlike a hurricane.

Eyes adjusted quickly to the tableau, to the shadow darkened cabin, the black water tugging at his skin which, he noticed was numb with cold. He coughed again and this time water came up, burned his lungs.

I drowned. He knew that feeling, a death he would avoid at all costs for the fear it caused him. With that realization came other, such as he hurt more than he could ever remember living through before, he was naked and wet and...

...and not alone. Mac lay sprawled on the shore, unmoving but breathing. A touch revealed a madly racing pulse and something more -- a thrum of energy like a mild electrical current that seemed to build the longer Methos touched him.

Nausea overwhelmed him again and he sat back on his heels, dropping his head until it passed. There were white caps forming on the lake as the wind continued to rise. Storm coming, he thought distractedly, unable to get his thoughts past the moment and have a difficult time making it that far.

What the hell happened? The question dragged at him as he tried to recall. He recognized the locale -- Mac's island. They had come here to...for...

His chest heaved as memory crashed over him again -- and horror and confusion and the wrenching nausea once more. What have I done? It had been a Quickening, had it not? A strange one, reminiscent of the two he shared with Mac when Kronos and Silas had been put down but different...

Not his memories then -- those ones of Darius -- but Mac's. He moaned low in his throat, an almost animal keening as he leaned over his lover again, laying his hands along the cold skin.

Rain began falling and Methos stared upward. They could not catch pneumonia, he thought with a curious detachment that seemed to waver in out between his bouts of confusion and grief. The cabin seemed impossibly far away.

There was a time, old man, when you could carry fifteen stone on your back for a mile or more. Mac can't weigh that much and it's less than a hundred yards.

Internal expectations resolutely set, he leaned forward and grasped the Scot's wrists, pulling him upward and managed to get the dead weight over his shoulder and then got to his feet, staggering under the unwieldy burden. That murmur of current started again, intensifying as he walked, sheer determination keeping him going when the slight charge built to something wholly uncomfortable, pins and needles all over his body. Unable to reason or rationalize, he ignored the faint coursing of what looked like St. Elmo's fire tracing paths along his skin.

The stairs were the hardest but he managed those as well, teeth clenched and body absolutely vibrating with muted pain as he got them both inside. He maneuvered Mac onto the bed then almost collapsed as the irritating current faded.

But with its surcease the nausea returned. He fought that as well, covering the unmoving bulk of his lover with a blanket then seeking clothes. His own things were still outside but a pair of Mac's ever-present sweats felt like heaven against his icy skin.

And still the cabin was cold. The woodbin was empty. The nausea was easing and he set himself to one more trip for his pack and firewood.

The rain was still a scattering of drops but the tree tops were being whipped about like sheafs of wheat. He reached for his pack and then the woodpile but the half dozen steps suddenly seemed like he was wading through mud. Something was being pulled tight in his chest and he staggered. A thread cast too tight -- stretched too far. Immortals don't have heart attacks, he scolded himself but the pain did not abate under logic.

His legs gave out as he clutched at his chest, gasping for breath, unable to voice his fear or his confusion as the pressure rose. The wind began to beat the rain at him steadily as he tried for the shelter of the porch. Then there was no shelter at all from elements or pain as his heart seemed to explode in his chest and obliterate any thoughts or cares in a brilliant wash of red light.

Ice had caked to his boots, stiffening the leathers, crystallizing on the furs, cracking the skin of his face where it was exposed to the harsh winds. He kept moving as the line of people did, oblivious to the weight on his back. To stop was to die. Abruptly there was noise and warmth. He had entered the tent, the cavernous lodge filled with smoke and voices, but willing hands pulled at his burden and he surrendered it. More hands pulled at him, feminine and sure, stripping him of the outer layers of clothing where the snow and ice had already begun to melt, leaving the clothing heavy with moisture. Dry clothes were cast over him and he was pressed toward the fire, a wooden mug of something hot and spicy smelling put in his hands.

"It was a good hunt!" the husky voice of a woman told him, eyes dancing with pride. Dark eyes in a pale skinned face, black hair pulled back and full of thin braids decorated with bits of stone and bright threads.

"Gerda," her name came to him unbidden and she grinned with a flash of white teeth, face close as she rubbed her cheek to his in welcome and something more. And what more could there be -- she was his wife. She brought the food next, a stew in the bowls, meat and roots of some kind, the heavy handled spoon.

There was much laughter. It had been a successful hunt. Their stores would hold until the winter broke. Thin children but sturdy were given their portions and then ushered to a corner, away from the adults, but one broke free -- a willowy boy, all grins and laughter, no more than five. Mark, his son -- well, Gerda's son. The child hurled himself at him and Gerda caught him.

"Let your Da eat," she scolded affectionately but the bowl was already set aside and Mark laughed as strong arms lifted him.

"Story?" the child demanded and Gerda twisted around where she sat at his feet and smiled. Others watched him as well, waiting expectantly, comfortably as Mark reached out to play with his Da's braids.

"A tale..." he said, smiling at the attention, glad to be able to entertain this large family he had become a part of.

"Aye!" One of them men called with real interest. "Of the hot dry lands that none but you have seen, Methos. A tale..."

Panic struck him. "I am not..."

He was and he wasn't as he fought to separate the two. Staring at his hands in horrified fascination. Slender, long, fingers shifted, altered and grew shorter and broader, pale skin surrendering to bronzed.

"I am not Methos!" his own cry roused him as Mac sat up, body shaking with fear, mind unclear and frantic. He groped in the darkness and found only the bedclothes to grip. Dream or nightmare, it mattered little: It had been frighteningly real. Lightning illuminated the chamber and in that delayed shock of whiteness he recognized his surroundings. The cabin -- his cabin. His breathing calmed somewhat as the familiarity of his surroundings settled over him. He moved and nearly doubled over with pain at so slight an effort. Pain clawed at his chest and head, pain lancing through temples and sinuses. Fumbling hands found a lantern and matches and suddenly there was light. He managed to get the Coleman lit on the third try, the simple effort requiring all of his concentration.

His skin was crawling and he rubbed at the bared flesh, realizing his own nakedness for the first time. It concerned him little. Save for sweats, this was his normal sleeping attire. The nightmare was fading as was the pain in his head as he moved toward the door, seeking his bags and warm clothing. A glance told him there was no firewood and he needed it -- it was colder than usual for September.

There was still pain but it was easing and he could only wonder at its cause as he shrugged into the sweater and clean jeans, that attire being closest to the top. Dressing cost him though and he leaned heavily against the door frame, the resurgent pounding distracting him once more.

This is like the aftermath of a Quickening, his tired brain supplied. Only it was worse somehow -- that heavy sense of otherness not settling as it usually did but hovering out of range. Had he fought? He thought not, but his recent memories were a blur and he fought for those as well. Clarity came slowly, reaching back -- what? Days? There had been an estate sale, a collection of rare and fine ceiling medallions and a set of first prints of Dicken's works that Methos had been interested in...

Why had he dreamed he was Methos? It was such an odd dream as well, filling him with fear and dread when the actual events had seemed pleasant; and then to wake feeling like he was suffering from a four day old hangover. He had not had such pain and confusion since he had taken Kronos' head.

He sought closer memories, chief among them where his lover might be. If he had required privacy or time apart -- had they fought? There had seemed some tension building for a few weeks...

A second wash of nausea overcame him, and his chest tightened as he fought for breath. Imagery assaulted him that was neither dream nor his own memories. It was like a Quickening, but whose? He slid along the wall and began breathing, his own technique coming to his aid as he tried to assimilate into himself whatever he had gained from the forgotten battle. It helped. He felt the tightness ease, the pain fade to something manageable as he began sorting through the sensations and impressions.

...and starkly saw Methos rise up from the water, skin aglow with a shimmer of blue-white. His green-gold eyes glowing and other-worldly and then Mac's world collapsed under the onslaught as his every thought was over-ridden by those of another as the forces rose up and slammed him back, slammed his lover back, the slender body dropping with lifeless pliancy to lay in the water...

"No. No!" Mac murmured, fear clutching at his bowels at his heart...he could not have...he would not have...

He dragged himself to his feet and jerked the door open, eyes already scanning the wind-whipped shore for anything, any shadow, and sign...

And nearly fell over the sprawled body at the base of the steps, his cry changing to almost hysterical laughter as he dropped to his knees to pull the mud covered, water sodden, wholly dead-or-unconscious-but-head-still-intact body of his lover into his lap.

The logical thing would have been to dump Methos in the lake both to clean him up and see if the cold water would rouse him and Mac gave it serious consideration for about four minutes -- which was exactly how long it took him to calm both his erratic heartrate, put a clamp on the near hysterical laughter ripping at his lungs and catch his breath long enough to put more than two thoughts together in a coherent string. By the time he had accomplished some measure of calm, they were both soaked and Mac became aware of an odd thrum of something emanating from his lover's body. Not quite the sense of presence nor as uncomfortable as the current that often followed a Quickening, but distracting nonetheless.

There was no running water in the cabin but despite that, Mac opted not to dump his mud-covered lover in the water but gathered him up carefully and carried the limp body inside. Nor did he give any thought to the damage the sodden man would do to the linens. He managed to cover him with the blanket he had found himself under and then pursued the same task Methos had begun, digging through the woodpile in the rain to gather up a load of workably dry firewood. He snagged Methos' pack as well. He had not brought that many clothes and it looked they both were going to need what they did have. Halfway back, burdened by wood and canvas he stopped, thought rather than reaction beginning for the first time.

He could not feel Methos.

He swallowed against the void of feeling, unwilling to dwell on it too much while stretching his senses to the limits for any nuance of the older Immortal's presence. What he got left a feeling in his brain like the taste of metal in his mouth, unpleasant, tainted, flat.

The shock of it left him shaken, brain unable or unwilling to formulate any explanations as desperately as he felt he needed them. One thing at a time...if this was what Methos had intended the explanations would come when the older immortal revived...if not....

If not, standing in the rain like a fool would help neither of them.

Checking on his lover, Mac found Methos was still and quiet, breathing but only barely and his skin ice cold. A fire seemed the first task and Mac set to it, rocking back on his heels when he finally got the blaze to an acceptable fury. The heat recalled his own rather frigid state and he stripped off the sodden clothes, once more diving into his bag for dryer apparel and then turned back to the figure on the bed. Stripping Methos turned out to be far more exhausting than Mac realized and he made no effort to try and re-dress the man, simply piled the blankets high and sat beside him to rest.

The dark hair was drying in thick mats from the mud, the face white as parchment and despite the blankets and the rapidly growing warmth in the main room, Methos' skin was no closer to being warm that the lake outside.

What did you do? What did you mean to do? he demanded silently of his comatose mate. Far more of the actual event was filtering back into Mac's mind -- the event and those leading up to it. His own stomach was turning at the violence he had perpetrated on his lover and the fact that Methos had both wanted it and seemed physically well recovered from it mitigated his guilt not at all.

Hands covering his face, he leaned back against the rough wood of the head board. His head was beginning to pound again and the initial rush of fear induced adrenaline had faded to almost nothing. He hurt. The deep bone wrenching hurt that spoke of death. Macabre grocery-rag headlines of infamous people dying during sex came unbidden and he felt the hysterical laughter welling up again. Laughter or a fear that would gobble up every other thought were his only two choices and he let go, expecting razor-edged humor and found himself curled up against the headboard sobbing instead.

Sanity seemed as far away as salvation at the moment.

Slipping from the bed, he lurched to the kitchen, grabbing up the heavy pot and ladling in water from the bucket he'd drawn from the well earlier. Coffee seemed a far more appropriate response than running screaming into the night.

The simple task settled him somewhat, as had the earlier ones, and Mac latched onto the idea swiftly. Finding things to do, every now and then shifting his gaze to the quiescent figure on the bed.

Sleeping beauty, he thought idly, but there was little beautiful about Methos now -- he looked rather appallingly ill and fragile, and not with the sometimes fiery inner shine of the dying but like someone who might well be in the last hours of a disease that ravaged body, mind and spirit.

The tube in her throat prevented speech and the words she might have spoke with her eyes were lost to him as well. She had slipped so quickly into this coma, between listening to one word and the next so that he had barely noticed. He continued talking, telling of the sights they had not had a chance to see, the sunrise over the Great Wall, midnight as seen from the plazas of the Taj Mahal, the hanging Gardens of Babylon. It no longer mattered if the places he described actually existed any longer. They were just words and sights and smells to carry her on her journey -- the one he could not make with her.

The sudden drone of the machinery beside her bed interrupted his monologue for a moment, but he reached over and turned the equipment off then continued talking. His voice was already raw, hoarse but it made no difference. He talked while the nurses came in, holding her small hand in his as the warmth left the pale skin, talking still until he realized he was making no real sounds save a rather gasping noise and that the hand between his was cold and wet with tears.

"Monsieur Pierson." One of the Sisters had her hands lightly on his shoulders. "S'il vous plait. You need to come away now," she murmured, her face as lined and ancient as Mother Theresa's and her voice as compelling.

Alexa should have had time to grown old and comfortable with her own wrinkles. He should have been there to see it, to help ease her through that transition from youth to age. Death came quickly enough for mortals as it was.

"Let go, Monsieur"

"Please, Mac. Let go...."

The use of his name jolted MacLeod back into his own mind, his own sense of place and he heard it again, rough, hoarse; not with age but with pain. He twisted to find glazed hazel eyes watching him, Methos' hand caught between his own, fingers white; Mac was squeezing them so hard.

He eased his grip, saw his partner try to move before the eyes were shuttered again, mouth tensed and pinched with pain. His own hand ached, burned, not from the grip but from the contact. That flat, metallic feel had returned and Mac did as instructed, his sigh of relief matching his lover's as the feeling faded a bit.

He could hear the water boiling over and moved, still not entirely free of the last memory, steps faltering as grief overwhelmed him and he stopped, glancing back at the man on the bed.

"You should have called me," was his first reaction, almost accusing. Methos stared, fought to sit up and failed.

"Called you...when?" Methos rasped out.

"When Alexa died...that should have...I wanted you wanted..." Mac stopped, eyes widening. Reaction and thought finally meeting up in the same place and the same time.

" are...these are yours...these thoughts and memories...." his breath caught, then resurged in a harsh gasp as he fought to separate the two before turning, eyes dark, frightened and angry. The coffee was forgotten, the sense of invasion complete...he had been...violated, raped was closer to the feelings that whipped his mind and emotions into a frenzy. Before he could stop himself he was on the bed again, hands gripping the bare shoulders forcefully, painfully -- the incessant thrum beginning again.

"What the hell did you do?" he demanded. "I shouldn't know this...these things...What did you do?"

A rough shake brought a hiss of pain and Methos tried feebly to twist away.

"I don't know," he hissed, breath coming short and shallow, body tensing. "Let go! Please." The last was almost a sob and Mac felt the pain in his arms, the burn, the acute sense of current.

He released him, backing away as Methos struggled to recover. Mac's own chest ached as he watched his lover struggle to breathe, recognizing the pain for what it was, that he was the cause -- that touching Methos had brought this on.

Too much. It was too much and he spun around, hands to his temples as if to halt the flood of memories threatening him. Out the door and into the rain, with no direction.

The sound ripped through him first and then the pain, the constriction in his chest as if something were being torn from him. He turned on instinct, then heard the cry again, a low scream of pain and terror -- from Methos -- torn from that already raw throat. Fear and concern raged and the concern won by a heartbeat and he headed back, only to falter and fall as pressure built in his chest and wiped out any feeling at all.

"Why did you lie to me?"

....................."You cannot fight my battles for me, Highlander."

"I had to take responsibility for what I'd done."

.................."We're none of us perfect, MacLeod. Not you, not me, not even Darius."

"Don't do this. You have a choice."

He had a choice and he chose to escape the darkness. But it hurt. Gods, it hurt. Mac lifted his head, seeing the open door, the still flickering light from the fire and Methos, half in and half out of the bed as if he'd been trying to escape something and gotten tangled in the bedclothes. Mac swore, head and chest still aching when he saw blood on his lover's face, along his temple, from a gash along his cheek - a gash that was still bleeding, that was not healing.

He reached him then stopped, memory supplying fear of the pain so barely subdued, of the ache in his hands when he touched the slender man. He fought it and reached again, aware of the thrum still as he touched the face to check the wound. It was healing, just slowly. Far more slowly than such a minor cut should have. It should have closed within moments of opening.

A lift and a hiss and he had Methos back on the bed and no longer needed to touch him directly. A few inches between the skin and the thrum would begin but not increase. A few moments of actual touching and the intensity became a mild continuous shock. Mac pressed no further, feeling his lover's pulse begin to race. He wiped the blood away and sighed in relief as the wound closed. Then swore in surprise when the slender fingers closed over his wrist briefly and he found Methos watching him.

"Warn me if you decide to go far," he breathed.

"What the hell is it going on?" Mac asked, smoothing the blanket across his chest, the wool and down seemingly enough to keep that charge from building to an uncomfortable intensity.

"I'm not sure," Methos said quietly, hoarsely, clearing his throat. Mac rose, bringing water, watching the placement of his hands as he held the cup. "I swear, Mac. I intended none of this -- this isn't what I had in mind..." his voice was slightly stronger.

"Tell me you have an explanation -- a theory. Was that a Quickening or not?"

Methos had to think about it, the effort physically costing him as a furrow appeared between his eyes, the mouth thinning. "A partial one --I think. Maybe."

"And the memories? No Quickening has left me with so vivid recollections," Mac said harshly, the fear was climbing again. He had wanted for so long to know more of Methos' past -- but not like this.

"Maybe because they are still mine -- as yours still belong to you," Methos murmured and Mac moved off the bed for more water, for clothes -- needing to move or do something. He winced as those steel fingers dug into his arm again.

"Don't!" Methos said and Mac stared, aware of the very real panic in his lover's voice and face.

"What is it? What is happening to you? To me?" Mac asked.

"I'm...I'm trying to figure it out..." Methos murmured. "But every time you move away..." he faltered and the hazel eyes were as terrified as Mac had ever seen, far out-reaching his own fears and confusions. He clutched at Methos' other hand under the blanket, mutely urging his lover to continue. Methos swallowed and drew his exposed hand away from Mac's arm slowly. "Every time...I feel like I am being ripped in the other half of my soul is being torn from me and I can't remember who I am."

"...And when you forget who you are, I will remember."

Only the promise he had offered with such sincerity had become a curse and Mac understood his lover's fear because it had become part of himself. Whatever had transpired had left Methos with less than what he had and overwhelmed Mac with more than he was sure he could handle. It was very possible that five millennia could be wiped out of memory between one heartbeat and the next.

Mac believed him. Whatever Methos had intended by encouraging their mutual surrender, he had never expected this -- had not been trying to summon anything but an emotional and physical union that would put them on the same level of commitment.

"I'll remember," Mac said, hazarding a caress through the matted hair. "Hang on. I won't let you forget." Words of comfort that seemed to work but Mac had no idea how he would ever fulfill the promise he made.

Careful experimentation allowed Mac to move around the cabin, Methos testing the limits of the invisible bonds nervously. The strain of having Mac go as far as the woodpile again left the older Immortal white faced and almost gasping in discomfort but conscious. Prepared for it, Methos could bear whatever damage had been wrought but Mac was panicking in fear and anxiety. Methos' tolerance for pain was pretty high -- for this distance to leave him pale and sweating was as unnerving as anything else.

But having his lover conscious and coherent counteracted much of Mac's fear and with that abatement came the inevitable aftermath of the odd Quickening, Mac suffering the sudden onset of his arousal in stoic silence until Methos plucked hesitantly at his sleeve.

"Take care of it, Mac," The older Immortal said, some faint trace of humor returning to the wide eyes. And Mac did, feeling self-conscious but aware that however embarrassed he felt, the needs in his body were being transferred along that invisible link to his lover who was in no shape to have to support more pain than he already had.

Testing his own limits, Methos moved away, to wash the dirt from his hair and almost falling when Mac built to the release he'd been seeking. The older Immortal started, body suddenly flushed and warming in reaction. He gripped the sink counter, water streaming around his face and shoulders as he watched his lover masturbate himself to orgasm. His own moan mixed with Mac's and then became something more, something harsher.

Not the same Quickening energy he had felt before but something far more draining. Mac's alarm grew as well and he controlled the finish, stopping with a groan of frustration but moving nonetheless. Polarized magnets as Methos reached for him, the fear once more transmitted into the hazel eyes. There was a definite build again of the energy between them but this was exquisitely painful, that transferring touch bring Methos to a sudden, aching hardness that caused him to gasp. Flesh touched without conscious thought and Mac was gasping, the need so strong to find release he thought he would pass out.

"This is insane," Methos murmured but did not flinch away as Mac's mouth sought his own. The kiss was searing in more ways than one, his lover's touch gentle but driven and desperate. Thoughts circled in Methos' brain as they sought for mutual release, recognizing that somehow the sexual energy generated between them was altering whatever else linked them, making contact bearable. Magnets. Polarized. Attract and Repel -- as Quickenings worked. Repelling when housed in two bodies -- the tell-tale signature a warning of an opposite. But not with such force. Not with pain, contained and separated by flesh and blood and life force. Only his own had been released somehow, released and immediately sought a new host. Part of it. But not enough -- enough to make them too similar.

"We have to finish it," he moaned as Mac's hands continued their reassuring exploration of his body.

"Finish what?" Mac gasped as Methos pushed him away slightly and the energy began shifting back to a painful intensity.

"What I started, what we started without meaning to," Methos said. "It isn't done..." Hazel eyes met brown resolutely. "I need to either take back what I gave or you need to take it all..."

"No!" Mac said and shoved his lover away, tension and current and fear returning. "I don't want it..."

"Mac, I don't think there is any choice...not any more. Whatever happened didn't finish. Not with me and not with you..."

"You don't know what happened!" Mac protested but the ache was back, the pressure, the nausea building the further he drew away. His skin was crawling and Methos was in no better shape, visibly trembling.

"It can't kill us, but this...this...fluctuation will drive us both crazy," Methos gasped.

"You don't know that," Mac murmured. "How can I give it back?"

"The same why I did, slowly, to the point of surrender..." Methos said unsteadily. "I would rather die in your arms than be separated from you forever!" he said in desperation.

Mac stopped breathing for a moment. Methos did know the risks. What happens if an Immortal loses his Quickening but not his head? Denial rose in his throat as he took a deep breath and he turned, diving into his things to retrieve his sword, rational thought fleeing before the soul-killing void he saw rising before him.

Without a word he held the sword out, standing in front of his lover. Methos backed away.


"Yes," Mac said, voice shaking. "We take the boat and we get off the island and you take back what is yours. I never wanted it. I only want you. If I can't have that I don't want the other either."

"No. No! Damn you!" Methos snarled, batting the sword down and fleeing without thought. He made it as far as the porch before the pain drove him to his knees, Mac staggering up behind him. The Highlander's touch scorched his flesh and he fought to be free of it, refusing to look at the bright edged shine of the katana.

We have both lost our minds! he thought as Mac pulled him up, practically dragging him toward the boat. There was no strength in Methos to fight him, his body spasming in more agony than consciousness cared to bear for long. Rousing from his faint he found himself on the dock, Mac untying the boat, face as resolute as Methos had ever seen, the katana laying between them.

Methos grabbed at it and turned, scrambling away and heard Mac curse. He barely knew what he was doing. No brilliant plan sprang to mind as he moved to the end of the dock. He vaguely thought to cast the blade deep.

That iron-edged grip halted any plan, sent pain once more coursing through his body. Welcome to hell, he thought under the white-hot lash of touch. The joy he had always felt at the touch of Duncan's hands turning to torture. The longing and desire had crossed into a nightmare.

..."I take what I want." Kronos' face looming before him, a prisoner at the feet of Raider's without conscience. His whole village on their knees before the marauders. Those that had resisted were dead, their bodies staked out as a warning. "And which do you prefer?" Life or death hung in the question. There was nothing he could do to save the others -- he had tried. He had...


Mac shook his head, suddenly aware that his lover was in his arms, twisting in agony at his touch, his grip. There was no way he could force Methos to take his head. Given the opportunity his lover would find away to take his own and thus accomplish the purpose he'd anticipated with less violent means.

"No..." Mac's soft words echoed Methos' protests, his grip became less bruising as he turned the shaking body in his arms. He captured the moan that escaped the parted lips, all too aware of the resurgence of pain...that suddenly altered, changed with the intent. Those energies were mitigated once more, easing the discomfort, the desire rising again and he felt the tense body begin to relax. The moan turned to a sob as Methos clutched at him, as much for comfort as to encourage the change.

It was a very fine edge between sanity and madness. Methos had ridden that edge for five thousand years or more and it was back to force Mac to walk the razor's edge.

"I'm sorry...I'm sorry..." Mac could only whisper against the damp silk of his lover's hair.

"Just...finish it, Mac. Please," The murmur came back, weak and weary, and Mac got a better grip on the narrow shoulders, guiding the slender body back toward the cabin, supporting the faltering physical strength as he drew on the mental and emotional strength that was all that had kept Methos going for his millennia long search for acceptance.

The bed was still damp and cold, the fire was burning low and Mac paid heed to neither.

"This could kill you," he breathed as he eased the trembling body back and covered it.

"Not doing this will kill me just as surely," Methos murmured, that tension already building as he arched, pressing his body against Mac's. "Only one of us can have this...have..." His fingers clutched at the thick dark hair tumbling around his lover's face, hazel eyes burning with a feverish intensity. "You either have to take it all or I have to reclaim it...sharing it doesn't seem to be an option," Methos murmured, another soft groan rising in his throat as Mac buried his face in the slender throat.

"I can't lose you," Mac breathed.

"Either way you'll have me, Duncan. I'll survive, in you or with you," Methos murmured and pressed more firmly, coaxed more forcibly, skin electric and over-sensitized as he felt Mac move against him.

"No. There has to be another way," Mac said, lifting his head to stare down at his lover. The tension between them came almost unbidden, but how had it altered and why? It was like a Quickening in intensity, in the uncontrollable wash of fire and sensation along nerves and flesh. It, combined with the feel of Methos beneath him -- smooth skin hot and flushed with desire, distracted him, making it difficult to think.

Mac felt the energy changing, heard Methos gasp as the burning feeling began again and half in desperation and half in experimentation, covered the older Immortal's mouth with his own. It dulled, shifted and aware of the subtle changes Mac felt his arousal grow as well. A slender hand covered him, encircled him, the assault on his lover's mouth gentling.

"Reasons don't matter, results do," Methos whispered, fingers threading through Mac's hair as he shifted, thighs parting to cradle Mac between them, hips lifting against Mac's groin as the hazel eyes locked steadily on brown.

Mac closed his eyes as Methos did. They had not thought this through, it was dangerously foolish and yet those bonds wrapping around them closed with a frightening swiftness. Mac was already breathing harshly, every breath sending fresh fire to his loins, curling in his stomach. His lover was shaking, trembling under the spasms rippling through the slender frame and Mac was only barely touching him. Even as he hesitated again he could feel the change, what was the fire of passion altering into something far more destructive and painful. A hand on the inside of Methos' thigh settled the sensation, Mac staring in horrified fascination at the sight of his darker hand against the pale skin, fingers stroking upward as Methos pressed into his touch. His fingers teased at the dark curls, sliding through them to circle the rigid and straining flesh of his lover's cock. Methos was as painfully hard as Mac was.

The simple and immediate response in the slim body was more than Mac could stand. With a groan he leaned forward, pulling the parted thighs toward him, pressing inward. His brain shut down as the tight sheath of flesh and muscle closed around him with hardly any resistance.

"Give in. Let go..." Methos' voice was an anchor in the confusion and he caught the slender fingers threading through his hair, his other hand sliding under his lover's lower back to support him as he pressed deeper and withdrew as slowly. Methos stretched into the thrusts, his movements an extension of Mac's own as he gave way under the gentle assault. The pressure built and peaked and Mac went still, body trembling as he felt something else build, that current changing once more. He leaned down and pulled at his lover, drawing them both up, mouths meeting as Methos clung to his shoulders and Mac held his hips. The peak passed and Methos moved again, gasping then moaning at the slow build.

And it came again, that silent, tortuous mist, the St. Elmo's fire that covered them, the pearlescent gleam that covered their bodies like sweat only did nothing to cool the skin. Methos was leaning heavily against him, trembling, every breath punctuated by a moan that could have been pain or pleasure and Mac was terrified of the weakness he felt pervading his lover's body.

"Now..." came the soft command, as if from a distance and Mac swore then sobbed as he felt the last yielding of that spirit to his own, the body convulsing around him. The fluid warmth that washed across his belly could have been semen or blood, it made little difference as Mac filled his lover's body, more of the slick warmth sealing them together. Methos went limp, breath barely noticeable and Mac clung to him, rocking him gently as his own body spasmed in the aftermath of that slow release.

Then held him tighter as the rest of it came. Not with the force of a Quickening, not with the ragged release that had occurred earlier, the harsh invasion of thought and experience and presence. It was like a caress or a massage, flowing within him, through him. He dared not reject it, felt that precious signature that had always indicated Methos' presence sing out, a lonely melancholy sound that filled Mac's ears and senses. Sounded and faded...the last note of an a capella song.

He could feel the body still warm in his arms, knew the heart still beat and the lungs still filled, but there was so much more he knew now as he continued rocking his silent lover, unheeding the tears that stained his skin, their bodies still joined. It might take Mac years to sort through what his lover had given him. Centuries.

Centuries Methos would no longer be able to offer him.

"I'll remember..." Mac whispered against his lover's pale cheek as he eased the unconscious weight down an covered him gently with his body. "I'll remember even when you don't," he promised again and laid his head against the broad chest, feeling forever slip away with each beat of Methos' now mortal heart.

"Duncan, is it really you?" The face had aged, but it was the same, Mary MacLeod looked at her son as if he were a ghost.

"I'm here."

"They tried to tell me you were evil. My boy! My son! But I knew it wasn't true." Her fingers clutched at his shirt and he covered them, gazing at the still figure on the bed.

"It doesn't matter now, Mother," he murmured and she followed his gaze to the heavy sword laid out beside Ian MacLeod's body.

"This was his sword. Claim it," she demanded.

"I canno'. He banished me. I have no right, I have no clan. I'm not even your son."

"No. It matters not who bore you, you are my son. And it is yours. Take it. Take it, I say." She lifted the sword and held it out to him. "Let no man tell you different: You are Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. What is yours you must never surrender."

"I didn't," Mac said bitterly, softly, staring out the open door into the pre-dawn darkness. I just took what should never have been mine to begin with. His thoughts ranging from grief to anger and back again throughout the long night. Methos had slipped from unconsciousness to something closer to real sleep some hours ago. He had never stirred when Mac had bathed him, changed the bedclothes and stirred up the fire again. After the initial shock had worn off, MacLeod found himself feeling better than he had all day, stronger, thoughts clearer. His only slim grasp on the hope of reversal was that still present thrum of connection between them. It never built up as it had before the Quickening slipped from his lover and into himself. But it remained, as did his awareness of Methos.

But that awareness was not the signature of an Immortal, but something entirely new and different and far more subtle. His own terrifying suspicions had been confirmed once he recognized that altered signature and his eyes were drawn again to the slender hand that lay beside Methos' cheek, the pad of the forefinger still marked by a tiny cut. A slight wound Mac had inflicted on his insentient lover. Hours ago. A lifetime ago. The wound remained. It might even leave a scar.

That unchanging line of red had dealt Mac a blow he was not sure he could ever recover from. Five thousand years for what? For this? For him? Fate had played a cruel joke if this were her intention -- to keep Methos alive for all this time only to lose him eventually to a mortality that he should have earned every right to overcome permanently centuries ago. Mac felt singularly unworthy and thoroughly heart-sick at having been the recipient of such an offering.

A stirring and Mac moved instantly, all other thoughts fleeing before the very real fear that the man who was waking might well be a complete stranger not only to Mac but to Methos himself.

The fingers flexed and Mac caught them, easing onto the bed to watch his lover anxiously. He had prepared for this waking as best he could -- the simpler things, the idea of mortality being a fatal illness driven ironically home. Water, hot and cold. A basin, recalling his own nausea.

Fingers tightened and Mac held them, waiting for the eyes to open and unreasonably glad when they did. He had expected confusion, fear, pain, possibly even no recognition at all. Even anger. He did not expect the searching gaze or the weary smile that curved the familiar lips when Methos did, indeed, recognize him.

"Scared you, did I?" he asked hoarsely and Mac slipped from shock to laughter in a half dozen quick breaths.

"You may yet be the death of me," he said, brushing his lips across the cool skin of Methos' forehead. His free hand snagged a glass of water as Methos tried to sit up. There was vertigo but no real pain that Mac could see -- not that he would if Methos did not want him to.

The glass acted like a magnifying lens to the tiny cut and Methos sipped at the water then stared at the cut. "It's not healing," he said impassively staring at his finger like it belonged to someone else.

"Do you know what's--"

"Shut up, Mac," Methos whispered, still staring in horrified fascination at the slight wound. The fingers of his other hand closed over Mac's bruisingly. The anger came far more swiftly than Mac's had and was reined in even more quickly. "Always be careful what you wish for, MacLeod," he said finally and his grip eased. "What do you know?"

Taking a breath, Mac hesitated, not sure what Methos was asking -- or rather suspecting he did but not sure he wanted to answer. Not truthfully anyway. But he did, recognizing cowardice when he saw it. Even his own -- especially his own.

"That you don't heal, not as you did. That you have...your signature's different. I'm not sure anyone else will know it for what it is. And that there are parts of...your history...that I would never have been able to accept if not for this," Mac said the last as a whisper. It was the hardest to say. The hardest part to admit.

"Except for...?" Methos murmured, paling and then nodded, hazel eyes meeting MacLeod's steadily. "It was worth it then."

"For you, maybe. Not for me," Mac said honestly. "This is a cruelty I never expected of you."

Paleness gave way to a flush. "It wasn't exactly what I'd planned..." Methos said and moved to the edge of the bed, pulling his hand from Mac's and placing his feet on the floor, his intent obvious but he was neither steady enough nor strong enough and the weakness scared Mac even more as he lunged for the faltering figure.

Mother nature called and Mac steadied his lover, all too aware of the new frailty in the once near invulnerable body. He got a blanket while Methos relieved himself, the older man secure enough holding onto the porch railing. Methos accepted the blanket willingly, pulling it around his shoulders and staring out at the still cloud covered sky. The faintest hint of dawn was beginning to show.

Almost afraid, Mac slipped his arms around the blanket clad form, pulling his lover close, not surprised when Methos turned to him, face buried against his throat, seeking comfort. The Highlander offered it. He had, at least, had some time to get used to the idea.

Used to it? Dear God in Heaven, never! he thought fiercely. What could be done, could be undone and would be if Mac spent the rest of his life finding a way. Then he was forced to revise his thinking. The answer would have to be found and quickly. If Methos were indeed mortal -- in all ways -- time was no longer a luxury either of them could afford.

The subtle shaking of his lover's body reasserted Mac's attention, and he caught the hidden face in his hands only to find Methos laughing. Granted, it was, perhaps, a bit hysterical. "What?" he asked

"Will you still love me when I am sixty-four?" Methos asked.

The smile would not be denied. "Need you. Feed you -- with a spoon if necessary. When you are five-thousand and sixty-four. But there is an answer -- there has to be!" Mac's own fears surfaced and it was Methos' turn to comfort. He pulled at Mac's head, mouth opening under the sudden desperate kiss that swiftly went gentle.

"I'm freezing," Methos said when they broke apart and Mac nodded, once more guiding his lover inside and this time closed the door to let the fire banish the extremes of the pre-dawn chill. The bed called and they answered, Methos willingly shedding the warming blanket for the far more satisfying warmth of his lover's body. Arousal was the farthest thing from their minds, but the intimate clasp of arms and thighs reassured both of them.

"Do we stay here or go back?" Mac whispered into the dark silk of his lover's hair. "Maybe the Watchers know something -- some precedent."

"Maybe," Methos said. "We'll have to go back eventually but I can't think about it, Duncan. Not unless you want me to run screaming into the night."

Mac chuckled softly. "Nice to know I'm not alone." He felt Methos' smile against his skin.

"No. Scared seems to be the appropriate response."

"Are you?" Mac asked softly and the arms tightened around him

"Terrified," Methos said softly. "There have been times in my life when I wanted to be mortal, Mac. Times when I wanted my life to be over. But not recently. I...I don't know how to be mortal, Mac. I can't even remember what it was like....." his breath caught and Mac tensed as Methos sat up suddenly.

"What is it?"

"You said my signature had changed? Changed how?" Methos demanded.

Mac stared at him then shook off the shock, reaching for it and getting the same subdued chording. "It just is...less, minor..."

"Like a pre-Immortal's?"

It took long moments for the words to sink in and Mac's heart rate went up exponentially as the seconds ticked by. It was like a pre-Immortal signature but not quite -- it still possessed that flat feel to it, a discord. Methos gold-green eyes were bright, almost predatory.


"No. No, damn you!" he swore, gripping his lover's upper arms tightly. "Don't even think it. We don't know. I've nearly lost you once tonight! I won't risk that again!" Fear drove him so far into anger he barely recognized it, fingers digging into the muscles of Methos' arms until he drew blood. The hazel eyes never wavered, never flinched. Nor did Methos say anything save his mouth was compressed in a thin line as he waited for Mac to ride out his fears.

They could not be overcome, not so swiftly and Mac let him go abruptly, shoving off the bed and out the door. There were great advantages to being on an island, Methos thought as he rubbed the feeling back into his arms, hissing at the scratches and then swearing when, after a few minutes, neither the pain nor the marks faded.

Medical training of centuries past came back and he was careful to clean the indentations with water and soap. No amount of hunting produced a first aid kit -- no need for Mac to have one, Methos thought belatedly. The idea of infection was a new one and he gave it serious thought -- he had no idea what shape his immune system might now be in. If he had been set back to the state of a pre-Immortal, then non-fatal injuries should heal as they would with all mortals.

He had little hope MacLeod would return quickly. He felt steadier but light-headed. No surprise. It had been an...interesting...night. His own calm seemed unnatural to him and Methos tested it as he sought clothes, dressing slowly as he probed his own mental and emotional state.

The fear was there still, barely suppressed and just below it, outright panic. That was normal. Anger. Shock -- he guessed himself to be about at the right level of acceptance.

He had not expected the guilt.

No apologies would ever be sufficient to repair the wounds he had inflicted, was still inflicting, on the Highlander. Mac had asked for none of this and Methos was forced to admit his own selfishness in forcing his needs into their relationship. It may have been too much to ask. He certainly had not predicted this particular outcome. That there might possibly be a solution, a cure, he thought acidly, was too likely to be ignored.

The fire was dying and he stirred it, burning his hand in the process and then readjusting his reaction and expectations once more. Pain was something he had learned to tolerate -- knowing it would fade. The idea that it might linger, did linger was new and frightening as well.

How do they stand it? he thought, staring at the reddened skin, adding the minor but persistent pain to that in his arms. The panic rose to the surface as he thought about what a mortal life could hold for him. He had always thought he had an appreciation for what mortals felt. He had been wrong. So very, very wrong. The sense of isolation closed in on him and he rose, almost ready to follow Mac into the dawn, needing the company of something other than his own thoughts.

He sat back, clutching his knees to his chest, staring at the fire as he tried to regain control. He wasn't likely to drop dead in another moment, he reminded himself. Mortals were not that fragile -- unless he scared himself to death.

Had he surrendered one prize for another? Mac had said...unbidden tears came, stinging his eyes. Mac said he could accept what Methos had been -- all of it. There were no other ugly little secrets waiting to spring up and tear them apart. Mac knew the best and worst of him, now, and the whys and whens, had gained some understanding of the man he called lover. Was it worth it? It was unlikely that Mac had instant access to all of Methos' experiences, but he would have them if it were necessary.

And he had Mac's, he realized belatedly, probing those subtle memories. The radical changes in his condition had overshadowed the rest and Methos felt calm settle over him as he probed those experiences, felt the rejection of Ian MacLeod burn through him as if he were Duncan. You were a fool, Father, Methos accused silently. Had you not been so blinded by your own fears, you might have saved you and your people a great deal of pain and suffering with Mac there to guide them.

He shoved the painful thoughts away, knowing he was able to condemn the man as Duncan had never been able to do. Four hundred years and Mac was still trying to prove himself to a dead man. Ian's utter rejection of his son explained much of Mac's passion, of his code. Methos had known it before but never felt it as he did now and wondered how much of himself would bleed into his lover's perceptions.

Running away, for one, he thought angrily at himself. Mac had suffered enough for Methos' selfishness, his plans and manipulations. What had they gained, really? Not himself, but them. Mac had been well on his way to accepting Methos without such a drastic intervention.


Beating himself up drew him no closer to a solution than blaming the fates. He had started this, and other than Mac, there was no one else to right it. Laying it on Mac's shoulders was too much.

And how much of this is cowardice, old man? he demanded of himself. Are you so much the coward you cannot endure this for awhile? That somehow Joe or Alexa are less for their mortality? Hypocrite. The last was a caustic lash at himself and he rose to stare out the window, the rosy flush of dawn bathing the lake shore, the sand. Mac was sitting on the dock, legs drawn up, a pose uncharacteristic of the Highlander, but very much one Methos preferred when lost in a tangle of thought and emotion..

What have I done to you, beloved? The regret was so sharp Methos flinched under it. Mac had buried enough mortal lovers. Methos had as well. Had not that been part of what drew them together as it had Mac and Amanda? Could Mac really bear up under another impending loss?

What would it be like to be the one that grew old as his lover remained young and unflawed, to feel the creeping stiffness of age? To fear that his lover would no longer find him attractive? His own wives and companions had expressed those fears more than once. Methos had left none of them because of the advancement of age and had no real fear that Mac would either, but to be on the other side of that fear...there was a strength in mortals he could only envy and never hope to lay claim to.

Unless he were not truly mortal. The possibility was toying with his fears...with his resolve. This was not Mac's choice to make, not when Methos had forced the other upon him. His eyes shifted, coming to rest on the katana laid upon the counter.

No. If he were wrong it would be above cruel to use Mac's own blade. Shaking with his own doubts, he reached into his coat. The long sword was too awkward, but the stiletto...

If you are wrong... The thought nagged at Methos even as he flipped the familiar blade in his hand to press the point to his chest. He had done this before, taken his own life to escape captors, to escape pains unbearable. This one was...could be...if you are wrong... He pressed, felt the sharp point pierce cloth to skin and deeper. ...slow hurts more...if you are wrong... He did go slowly, using the pain to clarify his thoughts. ...if you are wrong....if Mac finds you...what then? Are you so much the coward that you cannot endure....? His mind presented him with the image of what could occur.

This was not romance or Shakespeare. This could all too easily become a tragedy. A tragedy he would be unable to help repair if he were wrong. That Mac would survive his death was a given, but in what form would that survival take? Was there enough of him in Mac to let him get overcome...?

"No...please, don't...." The sheer agony in the words would have stopped him had his decision not already been made. Mac's face was twisted in a grief so harsh, Methos could not bear it. "Not unless you take my head first..." It was a plea and a sincere one.

As hard a request to entertain as his earlier suggestion had been for Mac to hear. It was an action Methos could no more contemplate now than he had been able to last night. The stiletto dropped and Mac went with it, dropping to his knees in a relief so sharp it cut into Methos' soul. Without hesitation he moved, going to his knees in front of his defeated warrior, offering what strength he had to the desperate embrace.

"I won't. I promise," Methos swore against the dark hair, Mac's cheek pressed to his chest. "Not unless we are both sure...not unless...not until there is no doubt. I won't leave you, Duncan. Not unless I have no choice but what time demands."

Mac nodded against his chest, fighting for a calming breath, arms tightening around the slender body, leaning into the solid strength of his lover, knowing the promise was valid and all too aware of the double edged sword Methos had given him. Time would demand that he would have to face this choice again -- might have to. But not now, not at this moment. Life was still theirs to cherish, to hold on to.

Fate could be sheathed for awhile longer.