Storm Front
by Maygra de Rhema

continued from Part One...

How can you know what you are doing? There isn't any easier answer....He isn't your friend. He is nobody's friend...You killed him...You had no reason and there is no excuse for killing him.... I will teach you the meaning of betrayal.... Trust me if you can't trust yourself... You have two choices here, Mac. You can take me to bed, or ....kill will have to kill him. Can you kill him? Listen to me, Duncan, to my voice and listen to me, Duncan, you trusted him more. Believed in him more...Listen to my voice and listen to me, Duncan. Listen....

The voices stilled and settled. They would be back but for now they had faded, giving much needed breathing space, time to reassert control, to re-order the events...the camp needed to be close enough to find them but not close enough to be detected. Hunt mode...must stay in hunt mode....

But the hunt was over and the prize would be waking soon...Waking. As if clawing back from death could be considered waking. But they were awake and aware and dying had not been so bad after all...but dying had been the last choice. The only choice it turned out but the last and least favored. Still, they had not expected that Methos would cooperate easily although they had rather counted on him being more willing to fight to survive. When did you learn to love so desperately, Methos? Learned it too late. So did I, thank you very much for the lesson. I did learn to hate rather early on, hmmm? And from a master...Death never had so willing a student. And you will be that Death again. I know what Kronos did. I know what he did to you because he did it to me...I suppose you were kinder.

The camp was waiting, the wood chopped and stacked, that cleft under the rock deep enough to keep the wet off and there....there was the drop. Listen to me, Duncan, to my voice. I will give you peace...I will grant it at the hands of someone who truly loves you, but we have to convince him first because he does love you. You could not kill him so easily could you? No. No, you could not kill him as easily as you killed Richie. It will be all right, Duncan, just listen to my voice...listen...

Methos was not so heavy. Light really, too thin. He should eat more. He had put on some much needed weight when he had lived in Seacouver. Virginia obviously did not agree with him.

First the hands had to be retied. Methos couldn't swing a sword if his arms were broken or his shoulders dislocated. But the wrists might snap. He has such slender wrists, such graceful hands. We remember those hands, gentle or terrible...can't tell the evil of a man by his hands.

There was a heartbeat. Soon, too soon. Passing the rope through the bound wrists and checking the knots as they were anchored to the solid girth of a tree and then the ledge....

Not so far down really, but enough. Enough to shatter the body should he struggle free...enough to keep him dead long enough for the time it would take to climb down and...and....

"What's he afraid of, Duncan?"

"Heights. He is afraid of heights. He can climb, but he won't look down."

He was just rousing as they began lowering him over the side. The rope jerked and a yelp of fear and surprise sounded just as he vanished over the edge. The rope went taut and they crawled to the edge hanging over.


Methos raised his head, staring at Mac's upside down face, the pain of dying barely subsided as the new pain burned through his shoulders and his wrists.

"Mac. You...can fight this," his voice was raspy, partly from pain and partly because he had yet to recover that initial breath he had lost on realizing he was some 1200 feet above the valley floor with nothing holding him but a rope passed beneath his bound wrists.

"I am...I have been but it's hard to fight the fight of the righteous when I'm not right," Mac said. "This isn't a trial, Methos. It's a contest. Can you get to me before I get you to take my head?"

"Why me? If this is about MacLeod and you don't want my head any longer, why do I have to be part of this?" He demanded, not sure who he was talking to, the strange melange of Mac and Cassandra, or himself.

"Oh, I get you the end. I get you, too. But it is only right that one betrayer take the head of another. But I don't want your death, Methos. I want my life back."

"You are already dead, Cassandra."

"So I am. Or am I? Interesting idea you gave Andres Suru. A more powerful Immortal that can overtake the personality of another. He believed it. I didn't until I thought about it. Could be done if enough preparation was done ahead of time," Mac's voice said brightly but it wasn't Mac. Methos could detect nothing of the Highlander in the cheerful exchange. But it sounded familiar. "So, now we get to see if I prepared enough. How powerful is powerful enough, Methos. How many do I carry now...a hundred? How many to you? Ah, but I take the tough ones, don't I? I get the nasty ones."

The voice had turned brittle and nasty and Methos strained to look upward, the familiar face contorted in rage. "And if I am right, Methos. If I am stronger, you will wish I had taken your head. You will wish, Teacher, that you could take your own. And I will be stronger. I am stronger already."

The face withdrew but not the presence and Methos tried to make sense of it, the odd cacophony of sense and sensation emanating from the Highlander's body and soul.

Methos closed his eyes, trying to shake off the last of his death, testing the ropes and knowing they were unbreakable. MacLeod tied a damn fine knot. At least his thigh had stopped pounding despite the still present arrow. Mac had apparently pulled those others out of his shoulder and chest.

He tried not to look down, but it was hard unless he let his head fall back which strained his neck and shoulders. Already his fingers were numb and his wrists burning from the tight ropes. Mac had left his feet unbound but it was of little consolation and moving too much sent him swaying.

The mountain side was cut away beneath the ledge MacLeod was dangling him over. Even if he could get enough of a swing in the rope, there was nothing for him to get his legs around. No conveniently protruding tree roots or half exposed granite. He tried his fingers again, wondering if he could get enough strength or a tight enough grip to pull himself up but he could not feel the rope looped through his bonds. He would have to wait until Mac pulled him up again.

There was no if. It would happen. Methos was rather sure he would prefer to remain dangling. The threats were as layered as Mac's personality at the moment. The fragile edge of control Cassandra was maintaining already eroding. But that did not necessarily mean that Mac's would come to the forefront if she failed completely. A dark quickening without the excuse. One for the Chronicles certainly, if Mac's or his own Chronicle didn't end right here on this mountain with none the wiser.

He forced himself to relax his limbs and felt some easing of the strain building in his shoulders. He had been trussed up like this before in his life. He would survive it, his left shoulder likely to dislocate before the right. He must have suffered some similar injury early in his life to make it the weaker. He had never been suspended quite this high before that he could recall. That brought an uneasy twinge to his stomach. Fear was an ugly and distracting companion.

Dwelling on what might be planned for him was no better companion or occupation for his thoughts and he retreated from that as well -- in fact he was far too calm. He swallowed, letting the fear creep back in a little at a time. He was in real danger of shutting down completely and he couldn't allow that. Not at this moment. Mac was still buried in and amongst whatever schizophrenia Cassandra had engineered and he need to be ready to recognize his lover the moment he emerged. Failing that, he needed an opportunity to find out with what methods and how Cassandra had constructed her revenge.

And why. Why Mac? What had MacLeod done save fail to rescue her from a prison she had walked into with her eyes open? Andres Suru had been no great mystery. Not in his methods of obtaining what he wanted. It had surprised Mac far more than Methos to find that Suru was among the people she might have formed alliances with. Friendship seemed a stretch. Suru would have no 'friends' that were women. She would either have been an object of desire or a tool or both.

Another legacy Methos might have left for his former slave. Her hatred of him was understandable and even forgivable. Her sudden detestation of MacLeod was neither. When had Mac become less than her friend?

The low roll of distant thunder distracted him and he gazed up at the darkening skies. How apropos. A rainstorm to accompany this little shop of horrors... An hour at best. He had little hope that his host would see fit to keep him warm and dry.

Nor did he. A little less than an hour later and the storm came, moving with the steady swiftness of all mountain storms. Mac had not reappeared nor could Methos hear him. The deluge left him cold and wet, wet cloth chafing at already over-sensitized skin. He had managed to work himself through the first round of self-pity and despair without too much effort but the rain added miserable to his list as opposed to just pained. But when the shudders started he knew there was more to them than either cold or pain. Despite Suru's attentions two years before, it had been a long time since Methos had suffered from physical or mental abuse. His time with Suru then had been but the span of a few hours and the attention not extravagant -- although he could now vividly recollect much of his treatment at the man's hands some two thousand years earlier.

Stop! That way lies madness, he quoted himself and pulled back from that path. It was actually with some relief that he felt the rope jerk, sending a wash of agony through his arms and chest as muscles that had long since locked up and gone numb were jarred back into his consciousness.

You forgot the winch, witch, he scolded Cassandra silently and made no effort to hide or muffle or hold back his scream as the rope slipped, the jerk driving through his spine like a hot wire. It was a comfort to have solid ground under him again, even if it was under his chest rather than his feet as Mac reached for the waistband of his jeans and hauled him away from the precipice.

He made no effort to assist as he was dragged close to the fire and dumped, but he cried out sharply as the arrow was driven deeper into his thigh, almost losing consciousness, but it was not quite enough.

"Does it hurt, brother?" Mac asked, using his foot to push Methos onto his back, his arms still extended above his head.

"What do you think?" Methos hissed and froze, staring up into the familiar face that now bore the expression of another.

"I think you have been here before," Mac said, kneeling beside him, hand gripping the broken shaft. "Now, do I pull it out or use it?" he asked pulling on the wood slightly. Methos hissed in pain as fire burned through his leg as it had through his back. "Won't heal right if I leave it in, will it....?" Mac asked gently. And it was a gently, or as gently as possible, that MacLeod pulled the barb free.

It still hurt like hell but Methos drew his arms down, to touch the Highlander's bent knee. "You are still here, Mac. I am here."

"You lied to me," Mac said rubbing the wound carefully as it healed. "You told me I was strong enough to keep myself apart from the Quickenings I take. But I can't," his voice dropped.

"You can. Cassandra did this, Mac. Lessened your resistance, put ideas in your head, twisted you up with your own fears and guilt." It was a guess, but Methos knew how Mac's mind worked. Guilt was a great tool when it came to this highland son.

"So none of what she said is true?" MacLeod asked and Methos stopped the answer that instantly sprang to his lips.

"I didn't say that. But the truth can be twisted more convincingly than lies can, Duncan," Methos said softly, reaching for that elusive combination of sound and words that would reach his lost lover.

He could see the struggle in Mac's face and body, not flinching as the large hand closed over his thigh. The pain had almost faded. "We have fought this before, Mac. You and I. You don't have to do this. And you can't make me take your head."

Mac nodded tightly, hands moving to his wrists, pulling at the knots but the wet rope wouldn't yield to his fingers. He rose. Methos pulled himself up to his knees. The idea of running did not cross his mind except briefly. Hands bound, he would be at a severe disadvantage and he was already worn down. Escape might become an imperative, but only if he had a reasonable chance of making it back to the cabin...if he could find it. He had a vague idea of what area of the mountains he was in...not that far from familiar territory. But these ancient mountains had more drops and impasses than their younger, western cousins.

Mac returned carrying the katana. Grasping Methos' wrists, he carefully sliced through the ropes. The return of sensation brought a fresher pain, then again as Mac suddenly grabbed at one of the abraded wrists and jerked him to his feet. Methos stumbled dropping again to one knee then went still as the katana's edge sliced along his throat. Mac's face was absolutely expressionless, muscles tight, but he had begun a soft stroking along the inside of Methos' wrist.

"What do you want , Mac? Right now?" Methos asked softly.

The katana moved away fractionally. "You know what I want," he said.

"I know what Cassandra wants."

"It's the same thing. What I did deserves no less."

"Because you couldn't get to Cassandra before Suru did? Because you wanted me to live more than Cassandra wanted me to die? She walked into his arms, Mac. And if Cassandra had really wanted me dead, we wouldn't be having this conversation." If I only knew who the hell I was talking to, he thought desperately. There was no way for him to tell when Mac was with him and when he was talking to who exactly?

Mac shook his head. "Not for that...those are your debts, not mine. But you knew. You knew the minute I took his head who I was killing."

"I don't, Mac. I don't know who you are talking about. When you took Suru's head?" Methos asked, pressing, prompting for all he was worth.

"When I took Richie's head," The blade pressed hard again and Methos tensed. The expressionless mask was gone, the dark eyes blazing with anger and grief and madness. "Where do baby Immortals come from, Methos?" he asked in a low tone, cadence unlike Mac's and very like Cassandra's. "Surely you would have to know...wouldn't you? Did you ever want to avenge the death of one of your children?" The voice dropped and Methos felt his heart speed up as Mac leaned into him.

"You could have kept this a secret longer had you bothered to kill me when you had the chance," Mac's voice said next to his ear, but it was not Mac, not in any way. "You couldn't explain it to him -- why you let me live after I tried to kill you three times. You couldn't tell him that you had a very real aversion to killing one of the few Immortal females that are breedable. But he knows now, Methos. Not the details. They won't do Duncan much good, will they, since he won't live long enough to father children of his own. But you have...and I did....and you could have stopped him from killing Richie. You could have kept him from killing my son. But it came down to choices, didn't it? My son. Your son."

"No!" The protest was ripped from Methos and he pulled away only to have Mac grip his throat and silence him, shoving him backward into the mud and lean into him. The dark eyes were blazing, and Mac was there as well, that betrayal as obvious as Cassandra's. Oh gods, how could she twist the truth so! His brain was screaming as he caught a glimmer of just how far into madness Cassandra had slipped before her death and how she had been able to drag Mac down with her. One lie, one truth, and no way for Mac to know the difference. Methos twisted, gasping as the sword bit into his shoulder at the base of his throat. But he was able to escape the hand, dragging in a great gasp of air. "You are not my son, Mac!" he said, slamming every bit of force and Truth into that statement that he could, enough to make his head ache. "Richie may have been Cassandra's son, but you are not mine! And if the only way I can convince you is with my death, then you take it now! You know it's not true!"

Some part of it got through Methos' thought as Mac pulled back, but then it was gone and Methos was unable to turn his head in time to escape the blow that all but dislocated his jaw. The katana was gone as Mac dug his fingers into Methos' shirt and flesh and dragged him upward.

"The who was my father, damn you! If not you, then who!" Mac demanded.

Methos closed his eyes. Oh, you wrought your revenge well, you bitch! The real truth is no better than the lie you told.

And she had left Methos no options but to tell Duncan MacLeod the truth.

She had lied, Methos thought frantically. Cassandra had lied to Mac to incite his anger, his fears, his deep-seated morals. The idea that MacLeod would seduce or be seduced by his own father would have sent the Scot into a bottomless well of shame and guilt. But she had lied. Which meant it was possible she did not know the truth. A very likely possibility.

Damn you! The curse was no idle curse but one wrenched from his soul with the force of Judgment Day. "I can only identify my own children, Mac!" he said, unwilling to add his lies to Cassandra's until and unless he was forced to. "And you are not mine!"

The force came rather sooner than expected. Mac shoved him face down and dropped on top of him, catching Methos' left arm behind him at elbow and wrist and twisting both. The bones in his wrist snapped for the second time that day and Methos howled at the acute pain.

"You have been tracing the genealogies of Immortals for three thousand years! Who else but you would know!?" Mac demanded and Methos did not have to think very hard to figure out where Cassandra had gathered that bit of information -- another bit of information that was just shy of the truth...

"Who the hell do you think?" Methos snapped back, planting the suggestion before he ever spoke. Cassandra had made her mistake badly in lying to Duncan, the doubt was already festering in MacLeod. He could feel it in the hesitation of Mac's grip on his wrist.

"Name him!" Mac demanded and his arm was twisted again. Methos felt the shoulder pop, almost losing, wanting unconsciousness to take him. There were definite disadvantages to having such a high tolerance for pain.

"Darius!" Methos gasped out. "Damn you! Why do you think he took such an interest, MacLeod!"

Buy it, Mac. Gods, please buy into this, Methos prayed silently, waiting. It was the closest to Mac's desires he could come, the nearest thing to a suspicion the Highlander might have and in the same heartbeat he realized how badly he might have miscalculated. Maybe. He renewed his prayers. The truth was already inside of MacLeod if he but knew where to look. Methos had to keep him from looking too hard.

"Your mother's name was Maihre -- not Mary MacLeod, but Maihre. She was also Connor's mother," Methos offered, supplanting Mac's need to know his father with the need to know his parents, his family. The last, at least, was the truth. "She was...she died a century after you were born. Connor is your half brother." Also true.

The pressure on his shoulder eased and unconsciousness teased him again, but it was only a tease as Mac hauled him up and flung him onto his back, straddling him and digging his hands into Methos' biceps as he pressed his arms above his head.

"I...I have no children? I haven't killed...murdered, my own children?" MacLeod said but it was a plea, he was almost begging.

"No. No, Mac. aren't old enough to sire children yet..." And you likely never will, Methos thought with true regret, even as he watched his lover's face for some sign that Mac was winning this battle. Not because Methos planned on watching him die, but because the Gathering was getting too close and the number of viable breeding Immortals was and had dwindled alarmingly in the past few centuries. "It's a mechanism of survival. Only the oldest, the ones who are close to a thousand are able to breed," Methos said softly. More truth...and more if he could find it. "Cassandra may have been Richie's mother, Mac. Mac, Listen to Me," he said and he was pushing himself hard, too hard. "Cassandra may have told you truths, but she has also lied. She may even believe those lies. Richie's death was an accident -- you know that. You fought those demons and won. Don't lose to this one," he said, pleading.

"You may wish I were a demon," Mac said, but his voice lacked conviction. Unfortunately, his fist did not.

It was dark when Methos came to himself. The fire still burned but the sky overhead , what he could see of it, was black and star filled where not obscured by hurrying clouds. Another storm. he moved and then groaned as pain shot through him. He was tied to a tree, tightly. Very tightly and his shoulder, the double-damned weaker one had been allowed to heal wrong, twisted in the socket and held there by the ropes. He was still damp and his head was pounding fit for a much wished for death of its own. Just for a bit. He also had to go to the bathroom in the worst way.

Don't drift off, Methos had to remind himself. It would be easier, and he wanted it. He could set himself aside from the pain and the situation. Let Cassandra try her tricks then. But there was still Mac to consider. Mac, who even now was sitting on the opposite side of the fire, seemingly asleep.

Or not, Methos amended as the dark eyes opened to fix on him. Mac rose, fluidly, gracefully, the movements his own. But he wasn't himself, Methos had to remind himself, or he would not still be tied to this tree.

"I have to go to the bathroom, MacLeod," Methos said. Try for the mundane.

"It's not over," Mac said softly.

"It can be," Methos murmured. "It's your mind, Mac. Your soul. You just have to remember that."

"I have, I do," Mac said kneeling in front of him. "It's not enough. And I know you lied. And why," he said softly, and leaned in, his mouth on Methos' was soft, forgiving, probing. "But what other course is there," he said pulling back. "For a man who kills not only his half-brother, but his father as well?"

"Mac..." Methos began and found fingers on his lips.

"There's more," he said and his voice went harder. "You should have stayed hidden, Methos. Your sins have all come back to haunt you, all of them housed in the body and mind of the one person who might have saved your soul. Lies come easily after so long, don't they? Mine, yours. You are not MacLeod's father. And you may not have known about Richie -- you have been away from the Game for a long time. But you do know who Sean Burns was. And once that was settled we did a little checking...such interesting things your old friends kept locked away," MacLeod said but Mac was gone and lost again as the familiar face moved in. "How many of your children have you killed, Methos?"

MacLeod leaned in again, catching Methos' face in gentle hands that were completely at odds with his expression. "And when did you know who Cassandra's father was?" Mac's hand moved to produce a knife from his boots. "Like father, like daughter, yes?"

Methos could not even voice his protest before Mac drove the blade into his heart and twisted it.

"Family reunions are so much fun, aren't they, brother?" Mac said leaving the blade in the bloody chest before stretching out beside the fire to sleep.

There is a clarity of thought that occurs just before waking, when reason and desire become as one thing and can, in that brief instant, become a reality unbroken.

If the one who sired you can forgive you, how can you dishonor my memory by not forgiving yourself?

Then it was gone and a different reality shattered through MacLeod's world, one that shifted and spoke in voices he had thought quieted. Hoped dead and gone. Our will is your will. We cannot extract the bits of judgment we require were you not seeking the same judgment. They faded to a murmur but it was not that they receded in his mind, it was that he flinched back from the presence of their thoughts and wills in his consciousness. He was fighting still -- so he had told Methos -- and he was battling still for some sort of clarity, some kind of order. He might find it if Methos would but trust him with the truth. Yet, he could not hate his lover for his lies. That Methos would step between he and whatever threatened him was too often a given, even when it was the truth that was the danger, where the pain lay, where damnation lay.

You cannot save my soul, Beloved, Mac thought even as the body that was still his rose with a purpose that was not. The fire needed rekindling and he did so, not even aware of his own jerky movements as those personalities jostled and argued for control. He had tried emerging among them only to have them turn on him as one to batter him down again. It was mechanism of his own psyche, he knew, the clinical explanation emerging with a clarity he had not had before. What could one expect when one's father was a psychiatrist? Had been, was -- no longer. Sean Burns had died at the hands and sword of a man already fractured open by other voices. Ironic twist of fate that he was present again at this most recent split.

The fire blazed and the coffee was set to boil. Methos would be incoherent until he'd had a cup of coffee. Actually, Methos was like to be incoherent until they pulled that knife out of his chest.

That was easily enough accomplished, and they did so, not even bothering to twist the blade again since he would not feel it. Oh, but you will be in a shitty mood when you wake up, brother. The coffee might not even help. The ropes remained tight, sodden rope cutting into the torn and sodden shirt and into the chilled flesh. That shoulder would need setting eventually.

The plan had gone badly awry and no easy remedy. In order to coerce Methos' will, they needed a threat, one Methos might respond to. Not his own life. He had too much faith invested in MacLeod's strength to think this madness would last forever. And he would be right, damn him. Eventually the strength of the bindings would falter and MacLeod would set to order his thoughts and will again. Damnable fact about a Quickening. The home team always had the advantage. So then to make sure that MacLeod's hatred rose up cleaner and stronger -- if Methos could not be coerced into the Highlander's head, some other Immortal might be. If Duncan no longer had the will to win.

You never really wanted to know exactly what he was like all those centuries ago, did you, MacLeod. Never wanted to know how he became Death. Or why he abandoned his role and became a prize in his own right. All you needed to know was that he had changed. He did. Want to see if we can make him change back? Or better yet, how about a historical re-enactment? Those are popular in this part of the country. Not the War Between the States, but the war between heaven and hell? And maybe, just maybe if Methos can be brought to those times again, he will forget why you are too important to lose?

The harsh and maniacal laughter that echoed across the ancient mountains had not been heard for two thousand years and not one gasping, twisted mirth filled breath of it ever belonged to Duncan MacLeod.

He was jostled to life again, moved and maneuvered, and then gone again as pain exploded through his frozen shoulder as it was thawed rather violently. One faint down. I always wanted to be better at fainting, Methos thought as his arm was adjusted again, moved and began healing -- correctly this time. His other hand was still bound, fingers numb, but at least he didn't have to go to the bathroom anymore. Death had no regard for such hygienic niceties. Not that it would matter as he felt Mac's hands tugging at his sodden and rank jeans. It was cool, the air heavy and damp but it felt better than the constant rub and chafe of the wet cloth. The preference would change again, Methos had no doubt, but he was willing to take his comforts where he could.

"I made coffee," Mac's voice, calm, solicitous but the face was still and blank as he finished stripping Methos of his clothes, leaving him sitting bare-assed and chilled. "Bath first," Mac murmured and Methos yelped again as frigid water was poured over him. He shook his head to clear his eyes. He was a bit cleaner and less like to smell and attract whatever wildlife might be in the area. A second bucket finished the job and then his left arm was tied to the right, leaving him kneeling next to what was becoming his favorite tree.

The coffee was dutifully produced and Methos sipped at it, checking taste and smell.

"Sorry," Mac said noticing the hesitancy. "I forgot to bring Andres' little kit bag of pharmaceuticals. It's just coffee." He held the cup again and Methos sipped the scalding liquid, letting the heat settle as it might.

His scream, as the coffee was poured across his crotch, elicited no response from MacLeod at all.

Stoicism was not on Methos' agenda as he sobbed against the excruciating pain in the most sensitive of areas. Knowing it would pass did not ease the current agony one iota.

But it did pass and he drew his knees up carefully. Protecting himself was an elusive dream, but his body didn't know the difference.

"You had more resistance, I think, when you were younger," MacLeod said dispassionately.

"I'm a trifle out of practice," Methos said, voice breaking. An understatement of the facts. He wasn't sure he could take this careless cruelty after all. Not from MacLeod's hands, no matter how little of Duncan was actually left inside his captor's body and soul.

He's there. He's still there. You told him to trust you if he couldn't trust himself. If you don't trust yourself, you are both lost.

"What next?" Methos demanded, shoving defiance into his voice, his tone, his body. "A little rape? A couple of beatings? Break a few bones? Hot pokers and thumbscrews? What you want me to do you can't force upon me. You...none of you ever could."

"No," Mac said, reaching out to touch his arm gently, to lay a light caress across his breast and throat. "We know that. We don't like it, but it is true. We can't make you take his head for fear of your own. But can you take his head to save his soul? What will be left of him when we are done with you? When his hands are the ones that break your bones, flay the flesh from your body or drive a sharpened stick so deep inside you that you can only scream in agony but not die? What will be left of him, then? And when we leave him, when we sink back into what is left of his mind and body and spirit, what will be left behind? Will you kill him then? Then? When our need for justice no longer screams in his brain or in yours. When all that is left is what he has done and who he has done these things to -- how he has battered and broken the one strength he has called upon, the one love that is absolute. Will you let him live with what he will be then -- which is no better than the worst of us?"

The dark eyes that watched Methos were quiet and questing and with an aching sense of his own impotence, Methos could not find an answer. What would be left of the Highlander if all that was threatened and more fell from hands that had killed but never extracted more pain that could be helped? This bout of madness was both more and less than those that MacLeod had faced before. And when it was over, if Methos managed to retain his own sanity through the promised horrors, could he bear to face his lover, even if Mac did manage to retain or regain some vestige of his own sense of self?

This web had been strung tightly and well and it was largely improvised Methos knew with a certainty. That Suru and Kronos were sadists of the first water he had understood from the beginning. That Cassandra might slip into madness or demand vengeance was not so much a stretch either.

But there was a certain truth even in madness. Mac was no better than the worst of those he had slain in his life -- nor was Methos. But neither was he any worse than the best of them. For a man who had lived his life in the realm of black and white, Mac had a peculiar blind spot when it came to the gray areas.

But Methos did not have that excuse. He had not yet answered MacLeod and his legions and, tiring of waiting, the Scot had risen and was even now paring down the slim whips of ash that would suffice as a lash to tear at Methos' flesh. All this to bring about a death with no point.

If that was what MacLeod wanted and Methos was not so sure that Cassandra could have twisted the Highlander so. She had been unable to make him into an executioner but convinced him he was. She had not made him into a catamite for his own father but she had convinced Mac that it was possible. She had danced him to the edge of the grayness again and again and counted on his lack of perception to close the gap.

"Cassandra," Methos said, putting force in his voice and command and denuding the fear that his course presented to him. This gamble would be the worst of his and he might lose -- MacLeod might lose. Or win....the grayness obscuring any clear vision of what might be produced.

The second call brought the Highlander's head around. "Give me my sword and I will give you your justice," he said and that familiar body went still. "If it's his head you want and my hand to take it, then I agree."

Rigidity was the closest thing Methos could ascribe to his lover. Like a computer given too many conflicting bits of data, Mac froze.

"Unless your plan is to have him torture me just to make this worth the effort you've put into this little charade, then untie me, give me a sword and I will take his head."

"You are lying," a voice hissed out, not Mac's. "If I give you a sword now you will kill him and drag him off and bind him until we are silenced."

"Maybe, but that could be true at any point in your little game," Methos snapped, allowing his own rage to rise. Let that violence come, the ruthlessness he had set aside for something less consuming. "Do you plan to let this go on forever? How long can you wait? If it is not my death you want than why prolong this? If it is, then be done with it. And if its my pain you are after, well then, MacLeod can't really be held to answer for your vengeance even is it is his hands that do the work?" Methos snarled. "You could make him believe he had been killing Immortals because they deserved it. But you couldn't, could you, Cassandra? You could use his skill, his body to take their heads, but not his will. It is no different than the force that murdered your son. If the performance is poor, it is not the puppet that is to blame, but the puppeteer."

Confusion darkened the Highlander's eyes and Methos felt the first flicker of hope yet held onto his anger. "Come on, Cassandra...." he all but purred. "This is what you want, isn't it? If you want to lay torture on my account than at least find the truth in that, and not lay this as another burden for MacLeod to bear. Who do you want to pay first? What death do you want atonement for? You want me to kill MacLeod and wallow in my guilt. I have killed lovers before, Cassandra. Taking his head will cause me pain, but I will survive it. Just as he can survive anything your will turns his hands to. So what is the answer, witch? My pain now and MacLeod absolved from guilt or his death now and only half your vengeance met?"

The body jerked upward, those ash whips still in hand and Methos was not surprised when they slashed across his bared flesh at arm and hip, opening up shallow gashes and raising welts. "Your hand metes out the tortures, Cassandra, not Duncan's!" he shouted. "Why should I or he hate him for what you are doing?" The demand brought another lash and Methos did flinch as the wands opened a slim gash in his side.

"You've ensured he won't fight, so let me take his head and you can be at peace. Or better yet you can slide into my soul and see how far you get," he taunted, with a hard smile. "What price justice?"

The third strike was followed by the ash wands being tossed away as MacLeod whirled, snatching up the katana to sever the ropes. Methos moved as MacLeod retrieved the heavier sword from Methos' pack and flung it at the ground before his knees.

"And my clothes," Methos commanded, pulling in on that Voice. "I'll be damned if I'll stand here bare-assed to settle a debt I don't owe!"

The pack was flung as well, and Methos pulled out fresh jeans, barely wincing as he dragged the dry cloth over those yet unhealed gashes on his hip. The shirt was easier and less irritating.

Mac still stood, staring at him defiantly, the anger apparent. Whatever Cassandra was or wanted, she could not escape his words or the truth of them.

"Do you want a fight or an execution?" Methos asked, his own voice as cold as the early morning air.

"I want justice!" Mac snarled.

Bullshit. You want vengeance. You want a purpose and a point and there isn't one. Not for any of us, not until the end, Methos thought, but he was not done yet. There was no holy spring here for Mac to face himself over, no demon to tug at his sanity.

Without a word, MacLeod picked up the katana.

"Fight or fail, Mac," Methos said, Voice timbered just so, just enough. Whether his feeble and under-used talents would make a difference, there was no way for Methos to know until this was dragged to its end.

Mac lay the katana in the dirt and knelt, dropping his head.

"You have fought harder for less, MacLeod," Methos said and picked up his own sword. For one brief moment he lay the blade across the back of the tanned neck. "And I have survived far worse," Methos added softly, gently as he lifted the blade and swung.

The triumph should have been there but it was not. The justice promised should have settled that anger but it did not. The belief that this was a trick should have been more certain but it was not.

Fight or fail; you have fought harder for less. Methos' words had been meant to open that gap -- to spread those doubts and convictions and they had, but the blade was still falling.

It was as much instinct and training as a need to survive and still the blade bit, but into MacLeod's shoulder as he twisted. Son of a bitch! You were really going to take my head! Mac thought -- the first thought that had been truly his own in more months than he could count. He heaved himself upward, twisting, his fingers closing over the katana's familiar grip.

There was no triumph on Methos' face either as he stepped back to meet the swing that followed recovery. There was still a fight, but Mac was holding it as much inside himself as anywhere else. Cassandra had slipped away in some flash of realization between one heart beat and the next. But there were others who cared less for vengeance and more for debts Mac didn't owe but they demanded Methos pay.

And how much of this do you think he owes, MacLeod? For that need in you resides here as well. Cassandra but opened the gate.

Methos fell back again, trying to keep to the cleared area, his bare feet too easy a target for the rough ground. But he was holding, countering every move as he had...

This morning. Who had driven MacLeod to swing his blade toward the vulnerable throat then? Not Cassandra, and not the other voices that were whispering and muttering in his head. No, that anger, that sense of violation and betrayal and hate had welled up inside him from himself. Cassandra had dragged out every piece of evidence and guilt and violation MacLeod had ever felt for this slender man meeting his attacks with implacable skill. All things Mac thought he had long since forgiven and forgotten.

But he hadn't, not really. Reconciling the Methos he loved with the man he was had never been accomplished. How could it be when what he was and what he appeared to be were so disparate?

Unless Mac could see the same differences in himself. And he could do so now. Methos had twisted the truth again. Cassandra's anger and sense of betrayal had set off familiar echoes in his own soul and he had answered them and used her as an excuse to mete out justice for himself as well as her.

There was still a livid welt across Methos' cheek from the ash whips and without dropping his guard he was protecting that injured left side.

This battle, as with all other's of the soul, could not be fought with anyone but himself.

His lover was not attacking, only defending, waiting, his face as impassive and unfeeling as Mac had ever seen and he knew without thinking about it too hard, that if he pressed, if he really wanted to pay for his sins, Methos would deliver the blow. The last one and go on. Not without regret or grief or loss, but he would go on.

How many times have you fought this battle for yourself, Methos?

Every day of his life, as you will. It was comforting to think the thought had come from the man who had fathered him.

The voices fell silent in the last clash of metal to metal. Methos met his eyes, the gold-green shadows hard and cold and devoid of the emotion that might well have cost him his life had he been willing to give into his own guilt as MacLeod had. With cautious care, Mac let his blade slide off his lover's, let it drop to his side and saw something flicker in the hazel eyes.

"If you knew I hated you so much, why didn't you just walk away?" Mac asked, his voice raw and uncertain now that it was under his control again.

The other blade did not drop. "Because the love was equal to the hate. Or was. Is it still?" Methos said and there was no longing or hurt in his tone, nor weariness. He had retreated once more behind walls MacLeod thought he had broken and destroyed two years ago.

Do you honestly think that love will save the world? That one emotion can keep the whole damn thing from collapsing in on itself?

"All the love does is make the hate easier to bear," Mac said softly.

"Yes," Methos returned. "You can't punish me for my sins, and I can't punish you for yours. But we can judge...God help us, our race is supremely confident in our ability to judge. Puts a whole new twist on the Game, doesn't it?" he added bitterly.

"But there's a price," Mac said and drove the tip of the katana into the dirt and watched Methos lower his sword slowly.

"Yes. There is always a price. What do I owe, Mac? Not for all of it. I won't answer to Cassandra or Suru or my own dead children. But I will answer to you."

"The truth."

The faintest smile breached the walls. "I am lousy at the truth, Mac. But I will give it a shot -- after I have had some coffee...that I get to drink."

MacLeod grinned and reached for the katana only to have Methos' sword come up again. "Why don't you leave that there? I am just a little jumpy," Methos said softly and he was, nervous and afraid, but not accusatory.

It required no thought at all to step past the ancient weapon as if it had no meaning because it did not. Nor did the blade Methos kept carefully between them as Mac closed the distance.

"Do I have to answer to you, as well?" Mac asked when they were close enough to touch. He made no attempt to do so.

"If you want. You choose who you answer to, Mac. Not me. If you want to answer to your god, I won't demand any more from you."

There was still tension in the slender body, a wariness and MacLeod could hardly blame him. Cassandra had been very, very good. He had been better at hiding behind her than she at hiding within him, though.

"And I used to rag on you for your lack of trust," Mac said with real regret. "Can we rebuild this?" he asked. "Or are you going to spend the rest of your life waiting for my conscience to show its ugly side?"

"That's pretty much a given, Duncan. I got that much when we first met. But," Methos lowed the blade and dropped it. "I don't want your apology, Mac."

"Tough," Mac said and reached out a hand. With excruciating slowness Methos lifted his hand to meet MacLeod's letting their fingers twine together. Mac didn't try to jerk him forward although, at the moment, having Methos in his arms seemed like the single most important thing in his life. Instead he simply gave a small pull. It was Methos' turn to judge if Mac were worthy of his trust.

He was. For now, at this moment as he felt the muscled arm slip around him and fold him into an embrace that was weary as it was grateful. "I am sorry," Mac murmured against the damp, dark hair.

"That's pretty much a given too," Methos said with what could have been a chuckle or a sob. "Guilt or regret, Mac. It's hard to tell sometimes which one you have more invested in."

Mac pulled back a bit, large hands stroking the pale face gently, brushing away the flecks of dried blood on his lover's cheek. "You would have let me torture you?"

"No, probably not, if I could have avoided it. She was there, Mac. I know that. And Kronos and Suru. They are much more a part of you than I can ever be unless you do take my head. Not my first choice. But the judgment was yours. You chose to believe Cassandra, to accept that her need for vengeance was just. And you chose to believe I would sleep with my own son," he added more softly. "You don't think much of me, do you?"

"I think the world of you," MacLeod said. "But I also think that five thousand years gives a man a lot of time to make mistakes."

Something bright and unexpected flashed in the hazel eyes and Methos relaxed a bit more, smiling ruefully. "You might just be growing up after all. I have never slept with my sons or my daughters to my knowledge, Mac. And don't ask because I won't tell you who they are or were -- those that I know about. There are very good reasons why Immortals don't raise their own children."

The last had a tight little twist of pain in the husky voice and MacLeod decided not to press. Instead he kissed Methos lightly then pulled away, guiding both of them to the fire as he pulled the cups out. Methos sat down, dragging his pack close to dig out socks and looking for his boots.

MacLeod offered him the cup, seeing the same exhaustion in the pale features that he felt coursing through his own body now that the adrenaline was settling. They needed to get back down. Methos needed a bed and a shower and Mac felt the need for the same but part of him wanted to remain here, in this ancient forest and shut out all that he could. It was a product of his fatigue and shock and fear.

"How much of this...of me can you take?" he asked his companion suddenly, watching his lover. Methos did not raise his head, but stared at the fire, the cup held between his hands, slender fingers stroking the enamel lightly.

"I don't know, Mac. And this is a lousy time to ask because my instinct is telling me you may get me killed, yet," Methos said softly but his face had hardened again. "Maybe some of your stubbornness has rubbed off. Trite as it sounds, MacLeod, you are young -- but then most Immortals are to me. I never thought being this old was anything more than a result of some pretty quick thinking and hefty knowledge of where all the exits are." He lifted his head to stare at MacLeod's thoughtful expression. "But I also know you have been sorely tried over the last few years. I am only surprised your...breaks haven't lasted longer. You have an incredibly resilient spirit, Highlander. Maybe it's that -- a kinship I haven't found in any other Immortal I've ever known. But believe me when I say that I will take what I can as long as I can. I know what choice means, Mac. And you are right. Love makes it some easier. But not easy. Neither of us are in any condition at the moment to think very clearly on any of this. And there is a mess at the house that needs to be cleared up," he added.

MacLeod nodded and rose, gathering up what needed to be as Methos put visible effort into concentrating on the common, the mundane. This is going to break soon. The tension coiled within him was palpable and painful. Mac's question had cut deep, as so many of MacLeod's questions did, forcing him to re-examine what it was about Mac or himself that made him hang on so doggedly to his relationship with the Scot. A different Methos would have taken the arrogant puppy's head long ago.

And then Mac's hand was extended and Methos took it, letting MacLeod pull him to his feet and into his arms and the doubts settled. For now. For a time.

Methos shouldered his pack and followed Mac down the trail, suddenly afraid they had little time left at all.

The silence became harsher than the pace they set but neither man rushed to break it. Or even dared. MacLeod managed a sidelong glance at his lover about every five minutes, waiting and praying for the tension to break from the angular planes of Methos' face, but it did not. He had wakened something in Methos that he wasn't sure he wanted to meet --- but probably deserved to. Every now and then the angry murmurs would rise again in his brain and it bothered him that it took so much concentration to banish them again. Had the trail been leading in any direction but down, Mac might have thought they were both trying to run from something as their pace increased.

They hit the edge of the wood before dusk had settled, but shadows were already stretching across the yard giving the house an eerie sense of abandonment. "There's a generator in the shed," Methos said tightly as they crossed the lawn. "I'll try to find something to board up the window with," he added and gave MacLeod no opportunity to debate or question.

Mac dropped his pack on the porch and sought out the generator before it got too dark to get it started. It was nearly as old as he was from the look of it but it kicked to life like a demonstrator's model and light emerged out of the nearest window. He topped off the tank and secured the door, hearing the solid sound of a hammer against wood. Without speaking he help Methos fit the two sections of plywood over the bay window, letting Methos hammer the wood in place.

"It'll do. I'll get a glazier out here tomorrow. The water should be hot still. Just make sure you don't scald yourself...the thermostat is electric and not hooked into the generator."

"You go--" Mac started but the look Methos gave him stopped his words. Right now, Methos needed some time to himself -- not long, Mac thought but time to settle whatever emotion was burning just beneath the surface of the hazel eyes and the carefully neutral expression.

When he was clean and dry and dressed, Methos slipped past him to take his own shower. Mac found a fire burning low in the fireplace and food set out. He also noted that Methos took his sword with him.

Very smart man, Mac thought having quelled those murmurs twice while he bathed. His own feelings seem to have been lost somewhere between fear and exhaustion; or maybe guilt and relief.

It took Methos somewhat less time that MacLeod expected for Methos to get cleaned and dressed. Whether his clothes were a reflection of his mood, Mac could not say, the black jeans and oversized black sweater only accentuating his paleness -- a paleness resulting more from his state of mind and stress than from any lingering effects of his treatment earlier. Torture. Don't candycoat what you did or why, Mac had to remind himself. But he was surprised when his lover settled himself on the floor in front of Mac's chair. He said nothing as he offered Mac a beer and sipped at his own. Nor did he flinch when Mac cautiously put his hands on the tight shoulders and began to rub at the tension gently. There was nothing more that Mac put into the massage, still feeling like the floor would collapse under him at any moment.

The bottles were empty and the fire starting to dim when Methos finally caught Mac's hands to stop him. He pulled slightly and Mac leaned forward to slide his hands his hands along his lover's chest as Methos tilted his head back. It was a tentative kiss, almost unwilling, but it was Methos and not MacLeod who deepened the exploration, demanding of Mac's mouth until the kiss bordered on desperate.

Or angry, Mac amended as Methos suddenly twisted around, digging his fingers into Mac's hair fiercely as he all but pulled his lover from the chair. Then it was desperate and angry, Methos almost tearing his lover's shirt off to get to the skin below.

"Don't say no," Methos breathed harshly but the bright sheen in his eyes made the demand a lie. A lie Mac could not refute. It was a punishment of sorts and he should not have been so willing to be punished but he was and Methos knew it.

"I'm not," he murmured.

There was no working slowly into the prolonged arousals that so often marked their lovemaking, no urge to ease the need or desire or will to subdue the violence. Nor was there any request or need for passivity on either man's part. Mac gave as good as he got, bruising the pale flesh even as his own flesh was marked by the rake of nails and teeth. Methos had found enough sanity to proved the minimum of comfort and ease before he took Mac's body in joining that was as much brutality as urgency. Methos made no effort to offer Mac release as he drove his body into his lover's forcefully and quickly, long fingers encircling Mac's wrists and his strength ready to stop MacLeod should the Highlander try to relieve his own acute needs. Even so Mac felt his own spine arch as Methos finally began pulsing within him, a ragged gasp the only sound his lover had made during the entire coupling. Then, before Mac could even react or recover, Methos was on him again, straddling him, guiding him inside. Mac almost came immediately after his swollen cock was sheathed in Methos' body.

His hands sought the slender hips, all too aware that Methos was still in control but there were no teasing games, or demands that Mac wait as Methos impaled himself again and again on his lover's cock until Mac dug his hands into the taut thighs brutally to still the demon riding him as he flooded the body in a series of fast thrusts. Done, he could only collapse back onto the floor, Methos leaning forward with his weight on his arms, his head down as he tried to bring his breathing under control. Levering himself off Mac's body he stood up, his face as unreadable and hard as it had been before the sex. He ignored clothing and his partner and headed for the bathroom.

MacLeod needed a few moments but he ignored protesting muscles and followed his lover. Methos whirled on him as he entered, body still tense and the eyes wary like those of a cornered animal.

"What have I done?" Mac asked him softly as Methos finally relaxed enough to sit on the commode and adjust the water. Methos shook his head, knowing Mac wasn't asking for a list of his offenses.

"Nothing. I did it. I...opened the door to reach you. I just didn't know how hard it would be to close again," Methos said, refusing to look at him. "Leave it for now, Mac. Please."

Mac nodded, not sure he could deal with whatever old wounds he had opened. He reached across his lover and adjusted the shower, then supplanted the savagery with every ounce of tenderness he could find as he drew his lover under the water. It was not so much a bath as a rinsing off, but Methos' face, as Mac kissed his lips, his cheeks and his eyes tasted far more of salt than bathwater.

When they were clean and dried and settled into the bed with Methos' back to his chest, Mac knew they both lay awake and still for nearly an hour, until sleep settled over them in all its uneasy comfort.