Storm Front
by Maygra de Rhema

continued from Part Two...

She was not interfering or being a busy body, Claire Ramsey told herself sternly as she headed up the long driveway that lead to the home of her newest (and favorite her mind snickered at her) faculty member. She wouldn't be making this visit at all if the man had the sense to move closer to town where every freak storm didn't knock out his phone lines.

She had thought to coax her own lover into making the trip, Angela and Adam having struck up an easy friendship over the past two years. But Angela, with her laughter and the dance in her green eyes had informed Claire that if she had urgings to play mother, she got to do it all on her own. Traitorous wench, Claire thought acidly but with an amused fondness. Her significant other made no pretense to attempting to fit into the life or role of Academia. Oh, there were faculty functions that she occasionally attended -- the nastier ones, Claire knew; the ones where Claire was in need of support, but rarely the silly social ones. They had hammered out the details and the mechanics of the give and take between them over the last twenty years but there were times when Claire wished the love of her life felt more comfortable around the people Claire spent the majority of her time with.

Of course, there were probably times when Angela wished Claire spent more time at home. She often said Claire had a gift with glazes and the wheel, but the pottery that consumed so much of Angela's time and energy was only an occasional, pleasant diversion for Claire. Claire's passion was languages, some of them so dead they could only be resurrected in bits and speculation. Angela wanted to forever capture the now in the form of glaze and fire and earth.

And how will you and your dark beauty settle your lives, Adam? Claire wondered as she topped the rise and saw the house. She knew why Adam lived here, it just never made any sense to her until she reached the house itself. For all that Adam was friendly with the faculty and students, outgoing and easy, he seemed much the different person here. His privacy guarded carefully by ancient forests, his comforts, few though the seemed to Claire, held close and within easy reach. Now you have a comfort of a different sort. I hope, she thought seeing the second vehicle parked next to Adam's. She pulled up beside it and got out and then stopped. Adam's privacy and security had apparently been violated rather violently. There was glass all over the porch, the big bay window that overlooked the valley boarded over.

She mounted the steps, looking for whatever might have caused the damage but saw nothing. There were no trees close enough to have broken the window...I watch too much Mystery on PBS, she decided as her brain twisted around the fact that the glass was outside. Something had come through the window from the house.

She stepped carefully, glass crunching noisily under her feet and stopped again at the dark stain near the stairs. Rich rust brown. Not a lot, but enough...blood, dried and somewhat washed away -- else her imagination was running wild and she was in desperate need of a vacation. I should just knock. she decided. If they had killed each other then only one of them would open the door, right? Yeah, the one who killed the other one.

She didn't get the chance to knock as she heard the click of the latch. I understand now why the kids in the horror movies always get killed in the stupidest fashion. She couldn't have moved if her life depended on it, which, given the direction of her imaginings, was likely.

"Claire?" Adam asked her when she said nothing after he had been staring at her with a smile on his face for a minute or more.

"Hi?" she ventured and he held the door open wider. He looked okay. Looked sane, alive, not overly distressed, although tired.

"Good morning. What are you doing up here so early? Come on in," he offered and she found herself moving forward. "Coffee?"

She nodded and let him take her coat. He was acting so normal. She was the one with the Twilight Zone atmospheric inducements.

"Mac, pull another cup down. Claire is here," Adam called out as he hung her coat up and led her into the kitchen. She followed , meeting MacLeod's Shy? Wary? smile as she entered.

"Nice to see you again, Dr. Ramsey," he said.

"Claire," she corrected automatically and sat down when Adam pulled a chair out for her.

"What's up?" Adam asked her setting out cream and sugar, some toast and muffins.

Engage brain, she commanded herself sternly. "I tried to call, but your phone's out."

"Storm took out the power," Adam said.

"It's out on campus as well and they don't think it will be back up before late tonight at best. Classes have been canceled," she said and curled her fingers around the mug he handed her, passed to him over the bar by his lover. MacLeod smiled again but it seemed a trifle forced and he leaned against the counter to drink his own coffee.

"What happened to the window?" she asked.

"Not quite sure," Adam said, sliding into the chair opposite her. "Stress on the glass, maybe. It was broken when we got back."

Claire's face asked the question.

"We hiked up to the ridge on Saturday to camp," Adam supplied. "Got caught out in the deluge. We came back and that window and this one," his head nodded toward the sliding glass which was also boarded up. 'Were both broken. It was getting dark. Other than boarding them up, we haven't looked too close yet."

"There's blood on the porch," Claire said and watched MacLeod. He tensed, pushing away from the counter, and then she was following Adam as he surged to his feet, heading outside, MacLeod close behind.

Her doubts were settling, somewhat. They both seemed very surprised, worried. Normal responses. Normal for what?

"Maybe someone tried to break in," Adam murmured.

"Out," Claire said. "The glass is outside."

"So it is," MacLeod said, and he did look worried, glancing at Claire with an expression she couldn't even begin to identify, but was strangely reassuring.

Adam was moving again, surveying the living room, looking for anything missing, but the room was oddly unaffected. The faint scent of wood smoke still hung in the air, the rug twisted somewhat.

"They don't seem to have taken anything. I don't know. Someone looking for shelter in the storm?"

"Then breaking a window?" Claire asked. Adam could be frighteningly naive at time. "You should call the phone," she amended.

"I can drive down and report it...although they probably have enough on their hands today and other than the damage, nothing seems to be gone. The blood..." Adam's expression tightened.

"We'll figure it out," MacLeod said softly and the last of Claire's doubts faded as the larger man rested his hands lightly on Adam's shoulders and her friend relaxed slightly. Whatever problems, there was not much wrong between these two men that a little time and maturity wouldn't correct, she thought smugly. The nasty, suspicious part of her mind had already catalogued the fact that neither man seemed to be sporting any bruises or other evidence of some kind of violence. You really are being over-protective, she decided, the worst of her fears -- that the window and other damage had been caused by some kind of domestic violence vanishing at the way Adam seemed to almost surrender his own strength to his lover. She turned to go inside, a faint smile on her face as MacLeod laid a kiss on Adam's temple.

Her coffee had cooled somewhat and she warmed it in the microwave with the easy familiarity of a friend, pushing past the boarded glass door and onto the back porch, the covering making it somewhat cooler. Less glass here, her eyes noted and then something further: more rust stains, spatters of them. She swallowed the reaction and drained her coffee. "Adam, look. I need to go. I just wanted to let you know there were no service should be..." she stopped as she turned, a bright smile still pasted on her face.

I don't know this man at all, she realized at the hard, cold expression on Adam's face. He had seen the blood as well. Ignorance could only be pressed so far and Claire was not a stupid woman. "I guess, one of you cut yourself boarding up the door?" she offered. Adam was silent and MacLeod just looked supremely distressed.

"How long can you stick to that story?" Adam asked her, his voice flat.

"As long as I live. I would like that to be for more than five minutes if you don't mind. Or failing that, do I get to know what's going on?"

"We won't hurt you, Claire," MacLeod said and oddly enough she believed at least half of what he said -- like the "I" part of "We". Odd that she should trust this man whom she had met once over a man she had known for over two years.

"Do you trust her?" MacLeod asked Adam, his hands once more closing over the narrow shoulders.

I should run, now, she thought then dismissed the idea a moment later. She was forty-nine years old, in relatively good shape but damned if she could outrun either of these two. Adam ran regularly at the campus track...for hours...and MacLeod. She wouldn't get two feet. Oh, Angela, I am really glad you were busy this morning, she thought with a strange sense of calm.

"Yes," Adam's answer surprised her as did his sudden movement away from her. "With all of it won't matter soon, anyway."

The last comment caught MacLeod as off guard as it did Claire. "Go ahead and sit down, Claire," MacLeod said, gently. "I need to show you something."

Adam returned with a sharp knife and Claire tensed again. Then he started to lay it against his own palm. MacLeod stopped him. "I think you have had enough pain for one weekend, don't you?" the Scot said softly, taking the knife away from him and stroking his thumb along his lover's wrist briefly.

In a swift movement MacLeod sliced his own palm open deep enough to expose tendons. Claire's immediate reaction was to grab a towel but MacLeod stopped her. "Just watch," he said tightly.

She did. Her eyes widened, then narrowed as MacLeod dabbed at the wound, to clear the blood and the image of electric blue caterpillars sprang to Claire's mind. What a great name for a band! she thought. The wound closed before her eyes -- she could actually see the muscle and flesh sealing back together. Then the wound was gone. She reached out to touch it in spite of herself, stained her fingers red with blood from the towel.

"Could I have some more coffee, please. With a really stiff shot of whiskey, if you don't mind," she said calmly, entirely pleased with herself for not screaming. "If you try to explain this before I get either I won't be able to lie later and say I was drunk."

Adam laughed and Claire relaxed some. It was a familiar laugh, one she knew well. Coffee and whiskey appeared, filling the cup in equal proportions.

"You're the storyteller," MacLeod said with a grin at his lover.

"I am this time," Adam agreed, pouring whiskey into his own cup without the coffee. "But you may need a shot yourself, Duncan. Explaining to Claire isn't the half of it and I don't know how much time we have."

"What's that supposed to mean?" MacLeod asked, obviously confused, but he took Adam's advice and poured.

"Mac, Cassandra is dead. There will be people coming for you -- for me as well," Adam said.

"What? More of her friends?" MacLeod asked.

"No," Adam said softly. "Actually, people you think are your friends. With Cassandra's death there are only four Immortal women capable of bearing children. We may have just forced the Gathering, Mac."

"Immortal. As in undying. As in living forever?" Claire interrupted and reached for the bottle again only to have her hand cover MacLeod's. Eyes met briefly and then as one both of them looked at the slender figure leaning against the counter, seemingly holding himself together with his hands alone.

"I think..." MacLeod said. "You had best start from the beginning."

Methos nodded and cast his mind back two thousand years to when this nightmare had begun.

Explaining to Claire the details and vagaries of the Game took the better part of two hours...not made any easier by Claire's insistence on sliding ever forward into alcohol poisoning.

"I wish I had a translation of the Avesta on hand," she muttered. "The 'glorious Immortals'...and here I thought it was an allegory."

Methos placed a cup of coffee and a sandwich in front of her. "It's 'bounteous Immortals' and you couldn't translate your own name at the moment. Eat something."

"I need to call Angela," Claire said blearily. She really did remember far more of the conversation than Adam thought...all the more reason to keep drinking. He was looking a little tense and haggard at the moment. MacLeod looked some better, preparing another set of sandwiches and watching Adam anxiously.

"You already did," Adam reminded her gently. "She's not expecting you until this evening."

"Oh. You aren't going to kill me right?" she said for at least the sixth time. Adam sighed, running his fingers through his hair. "You look like shit," she informed him very seriously.

"Eat," Adam said and Claire sighed with him and picked up her sandwich. Watching her Methos retreated to the sink, stretching his arms against the edge of the counter and staring blindly out the window. Mac's hands crept to his shoulders, massaging them gently and then with more force and Methos let his head drop as his lover worked at the tight muscles.

"How much time? How soon will ...whoever you made this deal with find out and come looking?" Mac asked quietly, glancing at Claire briefly. Her sandwich suddenly held a lot of interest for her.

"I don't know. Not before Claire sobers up." A smile quirked the corners of the thin lips.

"How much of the rest of it do I need to know?" Mac asked quietly.

"All of it..." Methos murmured. "Best to know what you are fighting for...or dying for."

"You said four women," Mac pressed.

"Mmm. That I know of. There may be more. The genealogies aren't complete. One of them is...Amanda."

"Amanda?" Mac said, his hands going still and his expression tightening. "Am I the only Immortal who doesn't know about our ability to have children?"

"No. There are actually very few who do...even among the oldest of us. It's a fairly opportunistic discovery. With good reason," Methos said and turned to face MacLeod. The Scot was doing his level best to listen and not react; to filter the information and give Methos a chance to explain it in his own time. "I was nearly two thousand years old when I found out, Mac. Had fathered children before that without even knowing it. It was one of the reasons, but not the only one that I could never have taken Cassandra's head. She was right about that -- and Kronos never knew. I didn't tell him."

"How did you find out?" Mac asked keeping his voice neutral then almost groaned when Claire piped up again.

"This is great chicken salad! Can I have some more?"

The sharp comment on Mac' slips faded when Methos suddenly doubled over with laughter. It was as much a tension breaker as in true amusement at Claire's wide-eyed request.

"Maybe she won't remember any of this -- or will think it all a dream," Mac sighed and turned to fix another sandwich for their guest. "Why do you want her to know?"

"For the same reason I almost told Joe two years ago. And I have the same doubts now that I did then. For the same reason it was important that Kalas not reveal the existence or nature of Immortals in the world. Although, given how few of us there are left, that is almost not an issue." Methos said.

"So, why don't you want to know Immortals are around?" Claire asked when Mac presented her with her second sandwich. She seemed oh, so calm, her words only slightly slurred.

"You understand bigotry, Claire. Better than most. Be thankful for a tolerant Board of Trustees," Methos said bitterly, sinking down into the chair across from her. Mac stood behind him, hands once more on his shoulders. If nothing else, Mac's two year bout of soul searching had taught him patience. It had also left him with gaping holes in his soul too easily filled by another's Quickening he had to remind himself. What are you going to do if your old friend Marcus comes after you, Mac? Because he will. Of course he will have to go through me won't that be a pretty picture if all of us end up rattling around in your mind and soul? He almost choked realizing how very likely that out come could be. Those who wanted the game to continue would not play by rules they only barely acknowledged any longer.

"What, people will hate you 'cause you can't die? That's nuts!" Claire said almost comical in her indignation.

"As nuts as hating you because you sleep with another woman," Methos said quietly. "Historically, some mortals who know about us think the only good Immortal is a dead one. A seriously dead one."

Claire nodded after a moment. "Okay. But people do know you're around -- these, whaddya' call 'em? Watchers? They know. They don't try to kill you...oh," she murmured seeing the expression on both men's faces. "I think I am about to get pissed off," she said fiercely then an odd expression crossed her face. "Actually, I think I am about to be sick. Did you put mustard in that salad, Duncan?" She asked, her face going the most ashen shade of pale.

"Uh...yes?" he said and then stepped back as Claire rose and made her fast but unsteady way to the bathroom. A few moments later the very obvious sounds of illness made Mac wince. Methos shook his head and picked up the uneaten half of Claire's sandwich, taking a bite.

"It is good," he commented.

Mac rolled his eyes and turned to follow Claire only to pause at the doorway. Methos thought he had gone and the cavalier attitude he had been exuding for the past two hours seemed to falter. Claire would have to look after herself for a few more minutes.

"You've changed your mind," Mac said and Methos started, looking guiltily at his lover who suddenly dropped in a crouch in front of him.

"I didn't used to be so easy to read."

"You aren't used to having your lovers trying to kill you...or to hurt you," Mac said and instantly regretted it as the hard mask slipped back into place. "Don't!" he hissed and caught the thin face in his hands. "Tell me enough to know why you think we are about to be challenged...or how we may have summoned the Gathering."

For a moment Mac thought Methos would resist but then Methos took a deep breath, the warmth coming back into his eyes for a brief moment.

"Of the people who know about the procreation of Immortals there are two camps. The prevailing theory being that the Gathering won't be some instinctual summoning of Immortals to some unspecified killing field, but by attrition. That we will keep fighting and dying until there are only two left. So, if you want to take the prize, you'd best be of the camp that says the fewer babies the better. If you want the race to survive you'd best breed like bunnies."

"Whose theory?" Mac asked shifting his grip to cover Methos' hands.

"Originally? You wouldn't know her. Her name was Heyla. She was first teacher. Later she had another name. Hera."

"As in Zeus and Hera?"

"Yes...public revivals after a death can come at opportune times. Hers did. Put her in a great keep an eye on our race. Mete out justice if she saw fit."

"And which camp do you fall into?"

"For my first the four thousand years I was definitely in the bunny category," Methos said with a small smirk. "It made sense...until I started tripping over my own offspring and realized they had not a clue. And I couldn't ...wouldn't tell them. Not much of a prize that, live to a thousand or thereabouts and you might get the chance to kill or be killed by your own children someday? So, I stopped...went out of the Game as much as I could. Heyla was dead. Long dead and it seemed like I was propagating a heresy...then I met Darius. Who knew, who had known Heyla and had children by her. Who was not the Darius I had met in Rome a thousand years earlier when he was young and cruel and ambitious. And Marcus. Both very persuasive men who introduced me to a very alluring and very...good, sweet woman who thought Immortals were meant for more than fodder for some pointless game. I...I let myself be persuaded. Amanda was the result."

Mac went still and quiet but he did not release the slim hands caught between his own.

"I told them what I knew, and how and we thought...gods...we were all so bloody arrogant...we thought we could change the tide of the game. The women knew...had always known or at least suspected. But it took all of me to tell them how and why."

He didn't get to finish. Both of them hearing a car in the drive at the same time. There was no signature and Methos rose swiftly, Mac checking on Claire who looked up at him from the bathroom floor with true spite in her eyes. He handed her a wet washcloth and an apology then followed Methos' path onto the porch.

A taxi was pulling away, down the long drive leaving a solitary, familiar figure on the lawn, a single suitcase beside him as he leaned on his cane.

"Ya' know, you two are worse than having kids," Joe Dawson growled. "If you are going to call and ask me mysterious questions, I should at least get a follow up call."

"Hey! Is he one of you Immortals?" A bleary-eyed and still not quite sober or steady Claire demanded from the doorway.

"What have you two been doing?" Joe asked with a tight twist of anger to his voice.

"No, Claire. He's a bartender and a good friend," Mac said resignedly. "Better than we deserve."

"I could use a good bartender right now," Claire asserted.

"What the hell is going on?" Joe demanded advancing on the two Immortals. "Who is that?"

"Joe Dawson, may I introduce you to my department head, Dr. Claire Ramsey," Methos said. Claire sank into a chair near the door and waved weakly.

"And she knows about you?"

"We just finished telling her. However, how much she will remember when she is sober is an object of speculation at the moment," Methos added. "Judgment call, Joe. Providence brought you...I think I just recruited a new Watcher for you."

"Great," Joe said coming forward and laying a hand on the older Immortal's shoulder as he mounted the stairs. Mac took the initiative and went out to grab his bag, dropping it beside his own in the foyer. "Nice place. Good to see you. Now, what the hell is going on?" Joe asked again.

"Long, long story, Joe," Mac said. "Got a note for your chronicles. Cassandra is dead."

"But not forgotten," Methos said softly and Mac shot him a look, noting the mask was back in place on the sharp features.

"Who?" Joe asked looking at Methos.

"Me," Mac said.

"Damn," Joe said softly. "Now, I need a drink."

Methos sighed. "Bar is open." He headed for the kitchen.

MacLeod's wiped his face with both hands. "I think I'll join you. Come on, Joe. You're pouring. Claire, you get to drink coffee."

He got no answer and a glance showed him that Claire was still in the chair, gently snoring. His envy of her obliviousness was suddenly extremely acute.

"You told her...I can't believe this is Methos I am talking to," Joe Dawson muttered. His voice was low in deference to the woman sleeping in the other room, comfortably secure under a blanket.

"Well it was either tell her or kill her," Methos said and Joe chuckled wryly until he got a look at the oldest Immortal's face. Methos wasn't kidding. "Your timing, Joseph, as usual is impeccable." Methos added to take some of the harshness out of his previous statement. Some, not all.

"Okay, so you weren't quick enough to come up with a better explanation for the broken windows," Joe said, backing off a bit. There was something more here -- something that had Mac deferring to Methos in a very uncharacteristic manner. "If that's what she wants, I will be glad to make her the Watcher pitch but if you feel you can trust her, I might leave it at that."

"And miss a chance to recruit? How unlike you to miss an opportunity, Joe," Methos said flatly.

"Have I done something to piss you off or are you just looking for something to lash out at?" Joe asked evenly.

Methos stared at him, eyes darkening for a brief moment when he saw MacLeod's move, the tension in the Scot's face enough to alert him that he was losing control...again. He forced relaxation into his body, but not very successfully. "The latter, Joe. I'm sorry. This isn't your problem and at best you may be able to help us deal with at least a part of it. The rest..." he hesitated, aware both his companions were watching him with wary concern. "If we had any brains at all we would pack up and disappear," he said finally, glancing at Mac to make sure he didn't miss the "we".

"Then we will," Mac said softly unfolding his arms and pushing off from the counter he had been leaning on.

Methos stared at him in shock. "Did I just hear you right?" he asked. "Let me rephrase this: If we had any brains we would run away."

"I know what you meant," Mac said with only the faintest irritation in his voice. "I spent a year in a monastery after Richie's death. I think I can give you that much or more," he added more quietly.

Methos stared at him for a long moment while Joe looked down at his coffee cup. He was not really uncomfortable with the relationship between the two men but there were times when they exchanged looks that really weren't meant for outsider's eyes. He heard rather than saw the soft parting of mouths and glanced up again to find Mac lifting his frame upward, his hands resting lightly on his partner's shoulder's. Methos looked less ready to explode -- for the moment, the hazel eyes once more clear and direct.

There was more to this story, Joe knew. He had not seen Methos so on edge in several years. Once settled back into academia, the changes in his friend had been profound, the Adam Pierson Joe had known for ten years or more re-emerging with a new name but with the same retiring manner. It was far too easy to see only that persona and not the incredibly complex man underneath. Watching him, however, Joe could not help but regret that no matter how much love there was between these two men, it seemed there was always and incredibly high price to pay for giving in to that connection.

"I plan on keeping that firmly as plan B," Methos finally said with a faint smile, which vanished in a flash of tension at the unexpected sound of a cell phone. "Claire's," he said after a moment and found the woman's purse to pull it out. "Hello?" he said as he powered it and rolled his eyes, nodding his head at Mac and toward the living room. "Hold on, Angela," he said and mouthed 'significant other' at Joe.

It was a very groggy and not particularly coherent Claire that took the phone from him. "Hiya, honey," she managed and then listened. "I don't think so. They have company," she said to the unheard query. "They have company, Ange'...I'll ask," she agreed. "Angela wants you to come to dinner. All three of you," she said with a raised eyebrow.

Methos started to shake his head but Mac touched his arm. "Tell her yes. We'd be delighted," Mac said, ignoring the glare his lover shot him. Claire looked as shocked as Methos but not as angry, glancing at Joe, who shrugged.

"Okay, then. Around six," Claire said and signed off with an endearment.

"Dinner engagements don't quite fit into plan A or B," Methos hissed.

"No. But a break in the tension does," Mac said steadily. "Unless you think something is going to happen in the next few hours, I think we need to take a breather."

"Excellent idea," Methos said and shook off Mac's arm, stalking out of the house, his back stiff with anger. MacLeod watched him for a moment then dropped his gaze, drawing a very slow breath.

"You're not going after him," Joe commented.

"No," Mac said. "A lot happened this weekend, Joe. Too much for him...for me...I know you want answers, both of you, but we need some hour or two at least. And I need to make some phone calls. The house phone is out and my cell. Can I use one of yours?" he asked looking from the man to the woman. Joe was the first to pull his out and Mac took it with a grateful smile. "I'll be in the study. Make yourselves at home but call me if you need anything."

"Sure, Mac," Joe said, all too aware of the strain in his friend's voice and face. MacLeod disappeared and a glance showed Methos had stopped not far from the house, perched on a tree stump near the woodpile, his back to them as he stared up at the mountain rising behind the house.

Claire got herself a cup of coffee and eyed the whiskey, then decided against it. She sipped at it then eyed Joe.

"So, you're one of these Watcher people," she said and Joe nodded with the ghost of a smile. "And a bartender."

"Yup. Adam is of the opinion I should try and recruit you. Interested?"

"If I say no do I still get to live?"

Joe chuckled. "Yeah. But if you don't, I can only caution you to keep what you know a secret even from Angela," he added with a pointed look.

"Angela would think I was having early Alzheimer's if I came to her with a story like this. How did you get involved?"

"Saw a man come back from the dead in Vietnam," Joe said quietly. "I didn't know what he was at the time and it was years before I figured it out, got recruited into the Watchers after seeing that same man take another Immortal's head. They did tell you about that part, didn't they?"

Claire looked slightly ill. "Yes. I haven't quite equated the man I know as Adam actually doing such a thing, but yeah, they told me. Why?"

"Why what?" Joe asked.

"Why do you do it?"

Joe thought about the answer. A few years ago he would have told her about the living history he witnessed, about the continuity of memory, or about the miracle of Immortality. But now...

"Because they are friends. Because they have seen and done so much through so many centuries that sometimes, just sometimes, they need to be reminded why...what it is they are fighting and dying for -- even if it's only a theory. Because at some point there will be only one of them left...and everything they knew or loved or thought might will be lost. We...the Watchers...may be the only legacy they leave."

He met her gaze, waiting, and saw the slow smile cross her face. "You know, that is almost exactly my reason for wanting to study ancient languages...the legacy part. I hate to think of what has been lost...what might never be recreated again. It's not as personal though, Joe. It's what I do, not who I am. But you many ways, what you do. A Watcher is who you are. I don't know if I could be that...dedicated."

"Even if you were Adam's Watcher for as long as he is here?" Joe asked.

"I watch Adam anyway. Did. He seemed to need -- not want -- but need someone to look after care. I have never met a man with so much charm who shied away so forcibly from any lasting friendships."

"You are astute. Loss to the Watchers," Joe commented with a dry chuckle. "Fair enough, but be careful, Claire. Even just knowing about Immortals can be dangerous."

"Warning noted." She grabbed the coffee pot and emptied the last of the pot into their cups. "So," she said and sat down across from him again. "What do you know about baby Immortals?"

Claire could be very fast when she needed to be and had a towel in Joe's hands before he even finished coughing up the last of the coffee that had made it to his lungs as he tried to inhale and exhale at the same time.

"Maybe I should rephrase that?" she asked waiting for the tears and shock to disappear from Joe's face.

Unaware that Joe was in imminent danger of either drowning or choking to death, MacLeod made his calls, not entirely satisfied with the answers he received at the end of them. His frustration was mounting the more he thought about what Methos had said -- and the things yet left unsaid making him edgy at best and downright paranoid at the worst. A glance out the window revealed that Methos had not yet moved, arms wrapped himself as he continued to stare up at the mountain.

You want to run, he said silently to the still figure. But you aren't and it's not all because of me. He half expected Methos to turn around and answer him but he remained as he was.

Mac was torn between wanting to go to Methos and apologize, soothe, comfort, anything he could offer and letting the man have some space and time to himself. Or rather, he admitted with a sudden and pronounced rise in his level of despair, some time away from him.

He had not really stopped to examine what had transpired the day before, shying away from the brutal examination his actions warranted. His disgust at himself was barely being checked and that only because Methos had seemed to get past it so quickly. Only his lover hadn't, not really, and there was no reason for Mac to expect otherwise. His lover was holding onto the barest edge of control to face the repercussions he expected from Cassandra's death and the deaths she had engineered through Mac's own complicity.

It was too much. MacLeod had seen the frayed edges of Methos' control when Claire arrived. Killing her had been a real option in Methos' mind, too close to a Methos MacLeod had never met and thought forgiven, forgotten and buried years ago: Murder as an expedient way to solve a minor problem.

And Claire was a friend -- that fact alone disturbed Mac more than anything else about Methos' reaction. It would be easier and more understandable if his lover would lash out at him, challenge him -- maybe kill his demons with a single swing of his sword. Mac knew he would not resist, would not fight Methos if the older Immortal suddenly challenged him. He swallowed bile and stared blindly at his lover. What he had done, been willing to do, went far beyond any darkness Mac had ever expected to find in his own soul. He thought he had come to accept that part of himself, to embrace the dark as well as the light. It worked well in theory.

In practice, however, darkness and light became indistinguishable. To find that his darkness could be so easily manipulated came as quite a shock.

Mac slipped out the front door, listening briefly as Joe explained more about the Watchers, about Immortals, to Claire -- providing another point of view, MacLeod hoped. Moving around the house, he approached Methos, making sure the other man heard him.

"How's the breathing?" Mac asked, stopping a few feet from Methos.

"Easier. For now," Methos replied but did not turn around. "I take it Joe is keeping Claire entertained?"

"To the best of his ability, yes," Mac said. "Do you want to tell me the rest of it, or do we just decline Angela's dinner invitation, let Joe find his own way home and handle this?"

Methos gave a dry chuckle and turned to face the Highlander. "Handle this? Mac there is no way to handle this!"

"There has to be or you would have been loaded and out of here the moment we returned," MacLeod said evenly. "I can believe and accept that I may have become a liability to those that want our race to continue to have children but you said they would be coming after you. Given that it is age that determines the ability to bear children, you have to have more value to them than that. What part of this haven't you gotten to yet? What have you decided not to tell me? Do they know who you are?"

"Don't you mean what I am?" Methos said bitterly. "Marcus knows but I don't think he's told anyone else, primarily since I do have more value. But it is not necessarily a value I want to trade on," Methos said coldly. "And good as you are, Highlander; as good as I am, we cannot take on what is equivalent to an elite team of Immortal assassins. They won't challenge you, Mac. They will hunt you down and take your head any way they can. They are survivalists. Nothing else matters to them -- not the rules and not the game because they are trying to stop the game. Or at least forestall it."

"And the Gathering?" Mac asked.

"Is a damn sight closer than I am comfortable with." Methos got to his feet, heading back to the house and Mac caught his arm, expecting the swing that followed and blocking it. He heard the sliding glass door open as he all but wrestled Methos to the ground. The older man kicked out, catching Mac off guard and sending him sprawling. Whatever he had unleashed, Methos showed no inclination to rein it back in. MacLeod rolled to his knees to avoid a particularly vicious kick aimed at his head, catching Methos' ankle to flip him onto his back and then saw stars as the sharp edge of an elbow caught him along the jaw. The next blow he managed to counter, his own foot kicking out instinctively to catch Methos in the stomach with force enough to double him over. He got a grip on Methos' arm, pulling it behind him, hoping to hold his lover until he calmed or at least until Mac could catch his breath...and abruptly found himself on his back again.

"We need to stop them," Claire said, distressed but Joe grabbed her arm. They had seen the start of the fight, rising at the sound of Methos' raised voice. Joe was quick to note that neither man was armed but they were dangerous, wincing as Methos rocked MacLeod back on his heels, a long cut opening on the younger Immortal's cheek.

"Leave them," Joe said. "The worst they can do is kill each other," he said calmly. "If one of them goes for a blade, I'll intervene."

Claire jerked her arm free and glared at Joe. "That's right. You are a Watcher. You can't interfere."

"So the rule book says," Joe commented, "But I would make an exception here. This isn't a challenge, it's a lover's spat," he said with a faint smile, but his hand slipped into the pocket of his jacket, wondering if he could get an accurate shot from here. Methos didn't look like he was pulling any punches...or kicks for that matter.

He did tense as Mac finally got a grip on the smaller man, slamming him to the ground with enough force to stun Methos for a minute.

Claire watched for as long as she could, not quite understanding what she was witnessing. She felt like Alice Through the Looking Glass -- the whole world had gone mad and Joe looked to be the White Rabbit in reverse, figuring they had all the time in the world. Her limit for madness was reached when she saw MacLeod hit Adam, splitting his lip. In her head she knew they would both heal from the cuts and bruises marking them but the sight of Adam's bloodied face snapped something inside her. Before Joe could stop her she had moved to the rear of the house. A quick twist and she was moving, a garden hose in hand and the pressure nozzle opened up full. The water hit the combatants and for a moment they seemed to ignore it until she narrowed the stream so the water caused discomfort. Mac protested and choked on a mouth full of water. When Adam moved toward him again Claire caught him in the face as well, actually striking his eyes. His yelp of pain was enough to get her to drop the hose as he almost fell. MacLeod caught him, steadied him, pushing his hands aside to check the injury.

"Kee-rist!" Claire said in disgust.

"Nice technique," Joe commented, making his way to her side.

"Works on my dogs," she said. "Are you two done now?" she demanded. "I have better things to do with my time than watch you two work out the extra testosterone. I don't even want to know what it was about."

"No. You don't!" Methos snapped back at her, still wiping at his eyes and trying to pull away from MacLeod.

"Towels would be nice at this point," Mac said, gripping his lover more securely.

"Sanity would be better," Claire said, turning away to get the requested towels.

"Boy, lady, did you pick the wrong party to crash," Joe muttered and then eyed his two friends. "Well, I am not Dr. Ramsey and I sure as hell do want to know what's going on."

"Unless you want to start all over again, MacLeod, I suggest you let go," Methos said with barely restrained anger.

"Not this time," Mac said resolutely, locking his arms around Methos' chest and meeting Joe's eyes. "There is more to this, Joe, and none of it's very pretty. This isn't exactly the best time. It would seem that Cassandra and I have been keeping close company for a couple of months. She was using me to kill other Immortals. Then she wanted to use me -- her control over me -- to get Methos to take my head."

"That makes no sense," Joe said. "Keeping a Watcher on you has been dicey at best Mac but we'd have known if you'd gone hunting. You have had five encounters in the last six months and only one came to a death."

MacLeod may have imagined it but he thought he felt Methos relax slightly. They had no time to pursue the discussion further as Claire returned, tossing towels at MacLeod, forcing him to release Methos to catch them.

He did so cautiously and was somewhat heartened when Methos moved only far enough away to begin drying off. He seemed in control once more despite the still obvious tension, but Joe's comments had altered the anger and fear into something more contemplative.

But given Methos' penchant for obscure rationales, Mac was not entirely sure this was a good thing. For now, he had to content himself with the fact that their battle had burned at least some of Methos' anger away. Drying his hair Mac decided it would be worth far more than a split lip to keep Methos thinking instead of reacting.

The idea of hiding all sharp edged objects, however, was looking like a really good idea.

Given a choice, MacLeod would have opted for the guest room to change clothes in but his bags were back in Methos' bedroom and when he followed his lover inside to get dry things, Methos closed the bedroom door behind both of them, stripping off his sodden clothes without a thought.

It was as clear a sign of truce as Mac was likely to get and he quickly followed the example. Clean jeans and a casual but nice shirt occupied his attention for a moment -- they were supposed to go to dinner, after all, but when Methos moved past him to the dresser to get dry clothes of his own Mac turned to him to block his way. The challenge in the other man's eyes almost made Mac yield ground but it eased just as the younger Immortal was about to give way.

"You are so damned determined to force this, aren't you?" Methos said softly.

"Not force the explanation. I can wait for that...for now. I just have this nasty feeling you are working yourself toward a plan that doesn't include me."

"Oh, it includes you, MacLeod. Very much so."

"I'm not Kronos, Methos. You don't get to play master planner to my capacity for brutality," Mac said harshly and saw the surprise flash across the strained face. Mac saw hurt in his lover's face as well and he reached out to touch him carefully, fingertips barely brushing along the sharp cheekbone.

"I suppose that's what I am doing," Methos said and sat down abruptly on the bed, holding his face in his hands. "I entirely out of practice for this," he said dryly.

"For what?" MacLeod asked sitting down beside him and twisting so that he could see Methos' face in profile.

"The truth, Duncan. Unvarnished, unaltered, without a personal perspective. There are some truths in the world that can't be avoided and they can't be masked. But they can be hidden so no one can find them -- but once they are out, there is no denying them."

"You get any more obscure and I will have to call Claire in here to translate," Mac said only half in jest.

Methos raised his head, staring forward. "Do you love me, Duncan?"

"Yes. It may seem like it is a twisted, sick kind of love at times, but yes. I do."

"No matter what?" Methos asked and then shook his head. "Never mind. Not a fair question. I'm not asking you to prove it and gods above and below know we have put it to the test often enough. But love and trust do not go hand in hand, no matter what the philosopher's might say."

"But you can't trust me." MacLeod said, not surprised.

"No, Mac. You can't trust me," Methos turned to face him. "You can't trust me to make the choices you would, to react as you would -- to value what you do. I have very few values that can't be surrendered. I have only one survive and now to see that you survive as well -- no matter what. No matter who has to die. Mortal or Immortal," Methos said and Mac pulled back a little.

"I thought we had settled this. You can't choose the winner of the Game, Methos."

"Says who?" Methos snapped. "You? Marcus? The rules themselves? Do you really think god, any god, gives a shit who wins or loses? If there is one or a thousand? The game is just that, Mac. It is pointless and the Prize so many of our kind seem so hot to win may be eternal damnation for all we know. Maybe when there is only one Immortal the world will end. The truth is, no one knows! And I, for one, am damned tired of trying to care." He rose up, pulling a shirt savagely over his head and tucking it into his jeans. "Come on. You want to hear part of the truth -- at least the truth as I heard it from Heyla?" He didn't wait for an answer, just swept out of the room leaving MacLeod stunned for a moment before he shook himself out of his shock and dressed. Methos was already settling Joe and Claire into the living room, the expressions on their faces as confused as MacLeod's. Methos pulled out the whiskey once more and offered it to all of them with the air of a man who thought his guests might need it.

"Would you prefer the fable or the facts?" Methos asked. He settled himself in a chair that was both deep and wide, built for sprawling, but that languid pose he seemed to have forgotten. Instead, he folded himself up in the chair, arms wrapped around his knees. The chair was positioned in the corner of the room, setting Methos apart from his guests. MacLeod sat on the arm of the sofa, the closest person to the older Immortal but he would have had to walk to reach him and Methos seemed to desire the distance.

"The truth," Mac said softly leaning forward and clasping his hands before him.

The chuckle was bitter and short. "There's precious little of that, MacLeod. And knowing it will not set you free."

"Then start at the beginning," Joe said. "If there is one." He had settled into the straightest and hardest of the chairs, giving Claire the rest of the sofa.

"A fable then," Methos murmured. "Once upon a time...there were two brothers. We'll call them Cain and Abel. They weren't those brothers but the analogy suits and for all I know, they may have been the fact behind the myth. They were as close as two brothers could be, sharing everything, rarely leaving one another's side. Devoted. Until there came a war; which was probably more of a skirmish than anything but the results were the same. In the course of that that battle, as they fought like true warriors and watched each other's backs, Cain fell and was taken prisoner. Hostage prince to his people. His captors sent word to Cain's father, a king, and to his brother, saying that for this prince's life, they wanted the surrender of the people and the land. The king, of course, said no. He expected the enemy to kill his son, but they did not. Instead, they hung the prince in front of the temple they occupied for three days and tortured him. Then they sent word again, and the king refused, again. Unable to watch his brother be tortured again, Abel tried to rescue him. Abel was captured as well. With both his heirs captive, the king still refused to give up his people or their lands. The brothers understood. They had each other for support. They expected to be tortured and were. The king still refused. Their captors released Cain and told him to reason with his father. If he did not return in three days, they would torture his brother every day until he returned. Cain did as he was asked and returned on the third day with his father's answer: No," Methos' voice had dropped, a story-teller's voice, disassociated and compelling all at once as he continued.

"Then they sent Abel with the same instructions. But on the third day, the king died...he was old and overwrought by the suffering of his sons. Abel did not return. On the fourth day Cain was set once more on the steps of the temple and tortured. And the fifth and the sixth and for nearly a month...and still Abel did not return. He was king now, you see, and had to see to the needs of his people. But he sent word finally. He would surrender his crown and serve the invaders, but his people would retain their lands under these new rulers. The enemy agreed, but only if Abel returned as hostage. Cain would be released to rule in his stead. Abel agreed. He met his brother and embraced him, ready to take his place. Cain captured the sword of one of his captors and took his brother's head. The region was plunged back into war and Cain's people lost. They became slaves to the invaders but in truth, nothing much changed. They still worked the land and raised their food and their children, but it was for another people's profit. The people blamed Cain and cursed him for betraying not only them but his brother. The children of Abel rose up to claim vengeance and Cain's children demanded forgiveness, knowing that it was Abel's betrayal that had caused their father's murderous act. Unable to settle the squabble, the aspect of the God called Justice came down and proclaimed the feud would not end until the two sides could be reconciled. They would never again have the comfort of a people or a land until they had done so and all the children of Cain and Abel were scattered."

"And became Immortal?" Joe asked when Methos fell silent.

"No. They were already Immortal...or near enough it didn't matter any longer. The healing...the Quickenings came from the allow them time to be reconciled with their enemies. We do age, Joe, just very, very slowly. Once the first death comes it is about a mortal year to a millennium if I am anyone to judge by. That first death comes violently because of Abel's death. The need for decapitation came from that same act. Those are the rules, set down by Justice. And that Holy Ground shall be a refuge for the fact that Cain was betrayed on Holy Ground by his brother."

"And one on one because only one can forgive the other," Mac said, watching Methos carefully "It's the rules that make it The Game?".

"So the story goes."

"And the Prize?" Joe asked.

"According to the fable, it rather depends on which bloodline wins," Methos said softly. "For the children of Cain it will be Forgiveness. For the children of Abel it will be Vengeance. Whether there is anything else to be won, I don't know. Someone, Darius actually, theorized that as with the Christian Messiah, should Cain prove the winner, the world will find forgiveness. Should it be Abel's line, then a balance will be restored. The conflict between the two is what drives the Game." He rested his chin on his knees, watching his companions as they sorted through the myth looking for truths they could believe.

Mac met his gaze first. There was more to this tale, Mac knew. Methos' gaze was too even. A good indication that the older Immortal had volunteered as much as he was likely to. The rest they would have to ferret out with questions.

"So the two bloodlines hate each other on sight?" Joe asked, his face tight with concentration.

"They did once...not so much any more. It is not a genetic imperative but in some it seems to be. You've heard of them, Joe. Immortals who otherwise seem sane, moderate, even good...who suddenly meet another Immortal they hate on sight."

"Byron," Mac supplied. "Even then...I disliked him. As much as I loved his poetry, the man himself..." he fell silent.

"You had reason, Mac," Methos reminded him. "As little as I agreed with your decision, there was cause. But yes. Byron hated you on sight as well and with far less reason. It depends on the individual...and you are just as likely to hate someone of your own bloodline. It's not an absolute, more a possibility. Or an explanation if you need one. It works better to explain why you might like a certain Immortal or feel a kinship when there is nothing to base the feeling on at the first meeting."

Mac fell silent and got up, needing to move. He refreshed everyone's drinks except for Methos who shook his head. The hazel eyes were still guarded, remote, but they met Mac's unflinchingly.

"All right, then. Explain about the ...Watchers? Elder Tribunal of the Watchers? What are they?" Joe said. Mac settled onto the arm of Methos' chair and leaned back, not touching the older man.

"There's no quaint organizational name for us, Joe. Just a similar goal. Or there was. Most Immortals don't know about the reproductive process of our race because they don't live long enough to know. I found out by accident, as did Marcus." Methos leaned forward. Something about having MacLeod so close was bothering the man, but neither Joe nor Mac could figure it out.

"How many know this fable?" Mac asked.

"A...few...Marcus...Darius knew. Rebecca. Kronos knew it as well. It is in..." Methos dropped his gaze, unwilling to meet Joe's eyes. "It is set down in a of the first. Or was. We managed to get that Chronicle and a few others away and hidden."

"Why?" Claire asked. She had remained silent, listening and trying to set her self aside from the personalities involved in what she was hearing. Adam looked distinctly uncomfortable, as if he wanted to run.

"We were trying to obscure the truth in the hopes of propagating the game."

"No. Why are you telling us this, Adam? You have already said that knowing this, telling us this puts us in great danger. Not just Duncan but Joe and I as well. You don't strike me as someone who would willingly put his friends in jeopardy. What is going on?"

Methos met her gaze for a long minute before nodding and getting to his feet, stretching to ease the tension out the long body. "All right. Here is the short version. Several millennia ago, there was a plan put forth to keep the Game going, the idea being that it would be forced to a conclusion by attrition. Not some great cosmic summoning of Immortals but because we were killing each other off faster than we could replace ourselves with progeny. Part of that plan was to protect the females, to allow them to come to breeding age or without their knowledge. That's why the Watchers were founded, Joe, not to watch Immortals but to watch over the women, to record the genealogy. But it rather expanded itself when Heyla was killed."

"Heyla being...?" Joe asked.

"My mother," Methos murmured. "She started the Watchers, was the one that sought out the women she could find to tell them what was happening and swear them to secrecy. The males were not to know. But they found out. Heyla was killed for trying to keep the secret. I killed her murderer. I didn't know she was my mother at the time...not until I found those journals."

"So why keep it a secret?" Mac asked. "Why not tell people, tell the Immortals?"

"Heyla kept her secrets because Immortals raising their own children had already proved a bad idea. There was too much risk...once pregnant, the females have the same gestation as mortal women. Nine months of seclusion is what Heyla recommended, then finding a good foster family. Pray the child reaches puberty or beyond."

"Why a bad idea?" Mac asked softly.

"Because Immortals of that age aren't exactly the most stable of individuals, Mac. We're not the most stable of individuals under any circumstance. I am not going to try and explain the psychology of Immortality. Heyla had her reasons and apparently, subsequent daughters agreed with rare exceptions. It can be a little difficult to fight off an enemy with an infant at your breast or a child waiting at home for you to return. Plus, there is a certain lure of power in having a young Immortal completely under your control. Imagine being brought up to know that was your legacy? The world was less rational then, Mac. Immortality was a great way to become a god if you wanted to be one...or to prove your powers by being able to raise the dead," Methos said. "Children have always been great hostages to bids for power."

"Methos," Mac was sitting up, watching his lover intently, seeing the body go still, the voice distancing itself from the tales he was spinning. "Who was your father?" he asked quietly, not caring if Claire or Joe understood but needing to know for himself.

"Ikanos." It was said flatly, without inflection, Methos glancing at Mac with a wry smile twisting his lips. "But you had already figured that out, hadn't you Mac? It may not be as much a threat as it once was...but then, who was the man you killed a few years back, who thought to set himself up as god? The weak will always follow and the foolish will always believe."

"Ikanos?" Joe asked. "I don't remember his name..."

"You wouldn't. He was never put in the Chronicles...he died before they started, nearly five thousand years ago," Methos said. "A good many Immortals aren't recorded, Joe. Some of the oldest, still living, aren't there either -- although there are few enough of them left. Thanks to Mac."

It was not a snide or sarcastic comment, just a weary one, and MacLeod had the unnerving impression that his lover was on the verge of collapse. Only that iron will kept Methos going after days of little sleep and less food, physical stresses and emotional ones.

"Whoa! That's why they will come for him? Because he is killing the Immortals who can breed?" Joe said. "But they are challenging him!"

"I know that!" Methos said. "This isn't about fairness, Joe. It's about survival; the survival of a race. I thought the same thing once...that our race, that Immortals should survive. Now, any longer, I am not so sure. I try not to think about the implications too much. Eventually, though, I was running into my own children on a regular basis. Not exactly a great place to be. I stopped fighting but not breeding, until I heard rumors that the oldest of us were being killed off. That there were only a limited number of viable pairs left. I joined the Watchers to find out who...and found you, Mac. Not from any need for power or viciousness but because it happened. But you were cutting a swath through our race because it was the more powerful Immortals who came looking for you. I began rethinking what we were doing and why. If a 400 year old man could win so handily, perhaps our efforts were useless, that the time for that ancient reconciliation was near. I had already stopped fathering children...but they, Marcus and Rebecca and Darius and the other Survivalists had still been at me to help. But I was tired of fighting, tired of killing my own children...I was just...tired."

He fell silent for a long moment unable to look at Duncan. "I made a bargain. They would leave me alone if I stopped you," Methos said softly to MacLeod. "Then we lost Rebecca. It seemed the madness that periodically overcomes us all...that genetic imperative if you will, was back. I found out as much about you as I could. Pumped Joe for information, and waited. Kalas was the perfect opportunity. I almost killed him anyway because I liked what I knew about you and I despised Kalas on sight. But he was older, closer to the age he might be able to contribute to the cause as it were. So I let him get away and came to you. But I still needed a reason. If you had been an opportunist, you would be dead now. But you weren't and when it came down to it...I couldn't either. I disappeared so neither you nor they could find me. I wanted out of it."

"You son of a bitch," Joe murmured.

"Joe," Mac said and got to his feet. "It doesn't matter."

"It does to me. He used me to set you up."

"But he didn't follow through. They...Marcus...the others, they told Kronos where to find you, didn't they?" Mac said. "As Cassandra told Suru."

"I think so, yes. Although I am sure Cassandra did so under duress. I knew too much and had failed them not only in refusing to father children but in stopping you. And they were afraid I would say something...tell you or the Watchers."

"Then two years ago...before Richie...just after you and Richie reconciled I called Marcus. I told him I would resume my...duties...if he would get the others to call off the hounds. I needed to buy time...that meant putting more players on the field...only...of the females that were available, neither was suitable. One was Cassandra the other was Amanda."

"Amanda?" Mac said.

Methos chuckled. "Bit of a late bloomer she was. Rebecca had told her what to look is not unlike coming into puberty again for the women...their menses stop on their first death and resume again when they are capable of carrying a child."

"Menopause in reverse," Claire said with an amused twist to her lips.

Methos nodded. "Cassandra wasn't a good choice for obvious reasons. And Amanda...there actually might have been no problems except she is a little too close to me for comfort."

Mac laid his hands on the tight shoulders and leaned his forehead against the back of Methos' head. "She is your daughter, isn't she?"

Folding his arms across his chest, Methos leaned back a bit. "Yes. She knows. She was a little surprised to see me and even more confused when I refused. Bedding one's granddaughter or niece is vastly different from bedding your own child. Anyway, that left us with a bit of a problem. Marcus wanted your head or a child. Cassandra solved it for us."

MacLeod's hands gripped his shoulder's tighter and Methos winced but did not pull away. "She...she did something to you...from what Amanda said, how she reacted when Richie and I met you at the airport. She raped you -- didn't she?"

Methos shrugged. "You can think of it like that but it wouldn't be entirely the truth. I could have left. I didn't. I wasn't all that surprised when she turned up...when she doesn't matter. Some part of me was willing...but I had to put up a resistance of some sort...a denial. I let her have her revenge and I gave Marcus what he wanted."

"You mean you have a child out there somewhere?" Joe asked.

"Yes. I have no idea where, though, and for all her acquiescence that may have been part of what sent Cassandra over the edge. It's probably also why she went to Suru in the first place. She has had several children by him already...Claudia is one, Mac. And if Cassandra still did hate me that much, or Suru, I don't want to think about what a child of mine, raised by those two would end up like. That was the real reason I went to find Cassandra after Suru, to find my child. I didn't. Or Cassandra."

"And you think they will come after me?" Mac asked.

"I know they will, Mac. Marcus is your friend, but this is not so different than the Cain and Abel story...Marcus feels it is his responsibility to see that the Immortals survive and you are threat to that survival. He is afraid the Gathering will come before what children are out there have a chance to mature, to come into their Immortality."

"And they will come after you for your...betrayal?" Claire asked her eyes narrowing.

"Or my services as a stud...Modern science is marvelous thing, Claire."

"You are joking," she said but the look on Methos face showed no trace of humor.

Mac slipped an arm around his chest to hold him, aware of the slight tremor in the slender body at the thought. "The triggers Ikanos set...that's why, isn't it?" he asked quietly.

"Among other...pleasures...yes...he had thoughts of raising an Immortal army. All he had to do was wait a thousand years. He was using Heyla to breed for him. Getting me was an accident and I don't think he knew who or what I was to him. But Heyla did, only she only knew it after the fact, that Ikanos was having her watched, seeing where she placed her children. He thought Immortal women capable of having children by anyone. Or maybe he did know...I don't know any longer and...he is long dead."

"Is he?" Mac whispered all too aware of the strain in the other man's voice and body. Mac was feeling a little numb and stunned. "I think we need another break," he said and Claire was quicker than Joe to pick up on the signal, but she waited for Joe to follow.

"How much more are you going to put yourself through?" Mac asked when Joe and Claire had stepped into the kitchen.

"Whatever it takes, Mac. It's gone too far now..." he began and MacLeod silenced him. His mouth descended on Methos' with a brutal passion. Of all the things Methos had said and done, the idea that he had let himself become exposed was a hard gift to accept. Harder still to accept that he had stood in front of Mac again to protect him. Methos was planning on taking on some of the most powerful Immortals in the world. Not with swords -- although he might have to do that as well -- but to stand firmly in place of what he believed, for what and who he loved. MacLeod didn't want Methos in front of him or hiding behind him, nor did he want to be in either position. They were meant to stand together as they had sworn, to face together all that life could throw at them. But there was another storm front coming and Mac was beginning to realize that those oaths might be harder to keep than he ever imagined.

"So, my brother, Cain," Mac said softly when their mouths parted. "Where do we go from here? Can we end this if I forgive you?"

Methos closed his eyes, tears escaping under the dark lashes. "I wish it were that simple, my brother. If it were this might have all ended long ago. I want you to live long enough to have your own children, Mac. I want you to raise them. Maybe that is the real way the game should end. Know anywhere you can hide for the next six hundred years? I could probably talk Amanda into going with you."

MacLeod chuckled. "So you can be the doting Grandfather? Methos, why not tell other Immortals?"

"What? Like the guy who went around saying he was me? Mac, not every Immortal has your...nobility. And they don't all want the same thing. I have had enough of a few trying to make decisions for the many. Let the Game play itself out," Methos said softly.

MacLeod pulled him into his arms and held him. There was no comfort he could offer for the weariness in his lover's spirit. "Why didn't you tell me this earlier?"

"I didn't want to dangle a different prize in front or you that you might never live to see. I refuse to get you involved in the manipulations of older and far more foolish heads rather than let you live the way you want to." Methos pulled back. "I love you too much for that, Mac. I want you to trust me...knowing I am hiding things from you, but I need you to trust me when it counts. And you have."

"Then what aren't you saying, Methos? What other secrets are you trying to protect me from, now?"

"You can't trust Marcus entirely, Mac. Your head is not his first choice for a resolution but it is a choice and he does want to keep the Game going. But if he tells you something will happen in a certain way, then it will if he has anything to say about it. He actually does have almost as much personal integrity as you do."

"You sound like you aren't going to be there...what's going on in that ancient head of yours?"

"I can't promise I will be. That's what I need from you, Mac -- what I am asking of you. Find my child. Prove me wrong. Raise he or she in a home where being loved is more important than being safe."

"Without you," Mac said it and Methos did not deny it. "Ever?"

"I don't know."

"It's a boy," Mac said by way of answer.


"Your child by Cassandra - it's what she meant on the mountain. Not that I was your son, but that she would trade your son for hers -- for Richie. Remember? She said, 'You could have kept him from killing my son. But it came down to choices, didn't it? My son. Your son.'"

Methos shook his head, "I don't know anymore...I am not sure it matters."

"I'll find him," Mac promised and Methos could only nod and touch his face in gratitude or regret. Mac leaned in to capture his lover's mouth once more. "And then I will come find you."

Had Joe Dawson been any less the keen observer that he was, he might have missed the subtle change in attitude between his hosts when they emerged, dry, dressed and still as solemn as monks at matins. Keen observer he was, though, and the mere closeness of the long, lean figures alerted him that while their troubles might not be over, there was most definitely a truce on, and a lasting one, he decided. MacLeod once more had that slightly protective an possessive air about him in regards to his slender mate, rather than the complete deference of camp follower.

Not that the latter was exactly inappropriate, regardless of its base and venal connotations. More body language indicated that Adam Johnston, linguistic expert and professor par excellence might well have been mothballed, if not forever, then at least for the duration. Joe's only question now, that he dared give himself permission to ask even in silence, was how much of a duration they had. He made no effort to press for information, letting sleeping dogs lie seemed awfully good advice.

"What can we bring?" Methos asked Claire, who turned a gaze on him that had stopped many a co-ed dead in their tracks.

"Civilized manners, for one," she said.

"I think I can manage that," Methos said with a faint trace of smile and even laughter in his voice. "Claire...I'm sorry. You have not exactly caught me at my best."

"I think..." she said, getting to her feet as Methos went to the rack to select a bottle of wine to add to their invitation. "I have caught you more honestly than I have in the past two years." Her tone commanded no censure, but neither did it convey much warmth. "I want an answer, straight and no myth and magic," she said. "Since all rationality seems to have faded from my brain and I have apparently fallen for this outrageous descent into the supernatural -- how the hell old are you? And who the hell are you?"

She could not have commanded more silence from the three men if she had shot them all dead. Methos was the first to recover, leaning back against the counter to study the woman, former employer and possibly former friend, knowing that her question had less to do with his age or identity than Mac or Joe might actually think.

"Five thousand years old...give or take a few years or a few centuries -- I am not exactly sure. My name is Methos," he said, ignoring for the moment the jaw drop on Joe Dawson's face. He had a reason for wanting Claire to know. The same reason she had asked.

"Son of a bitch," she muttered. "You can translate the Linear A, can't you?"

"I probably wrote some of what they have," he said and watched Joe's mouth close again, a hint of amusement dancing in his hazel eyes at the Watcher's reaction. Claire was a single minded woman.

"The paper you submitted, the one that got the trustees to offer you tenure, it wasn't speculation at all."

"I can't quite get up and tell them why, now can I?" Methos said. "The best I can do is guide them to a few well placed conclusions."

Claire nodded, mouth tightening as she glanced at Joe and Duncan. "You get this, you two. Anything happens to him before I get translations, and I will hunt you down myself," she said and Joe wasn't sure she was kidding.

Neither was the oldest Immortal. "Claire," Methos began.

"I don't want to publish them," she said firmly. " I just want to know what they say. Let's go. Angela will have food on the table when we get there." Grabbing her purse she slipped by MacLeod. "Come on Dawson. You can ride with me," she said and without a protest Joe Dawson followed, pausing to glance at his friends.

"I made reservations at a hotel in town. Any reason I shouldn't keep them?"

"No," Duncan said with a reassuring smile. "I think we can manage not to kill each other. We'll bring your bags," he offered and Joe agreed.

Settled in Claire's car, Joe was surprised and a little distressed to find his companion in tears.

"Hey!" he said, reaching over to put a consoling arm around her shoulders. "I know it's a lot to take in, Dr. Ramsey, but it will be okay. Look, why don't I get Mac to drive your car and you and Adam can come with me -- we'll follow. Until you calm down."

"I am calm!" Claire snapped, digging in her bag for a tissue. "I am just...angry," she said finding tissue and keys. The latter she jammed into the ignition as she saw Adam and MacLeod emerge from the house, locking the door behind them. She had her car backing out of the gravel before they could even catch a glimpse of her. "Damn. I have gone ...I worked my whole life to learn all I could about the art and ...the beauty of language, of the miracle of the written word only to find the last two years I have been letting a living Rossetta Stone pour wisdom into the ears of clueless undergrads."

"Whoa!" Joe said, not liking tone or implication. "Adam...Methos is more than that!" He gripped the dash board as she started down the drive

"I know that!'s just been like sitting on the golden egg for two years complaining that my nest is lumpy," she added with a shaky chuckle. "Oh, Joe. I like, care a lot for Adam for himself...even without knowing this or maybe in spite of it. But I can't help wishing I could find a cloister or a monastery for a few years and encourage him to stay with me for a while. To know what it was like, to hear it -- first hand. To know where the myths end and the facts begin."

"I know the feeling, Claire. Honestly," Joe said relaxing a bit. "He drops hints and phrases but if I press him, and I have, he loses interest. He...history for us is just yesterday's news to him."

Stopping at the end of the drive before making the turn onto the main road and glancing in her rear-view mirror, Claire could see Adam's sport utility closing in behind them. "It would almost have to be," she mused, cutting the wheel left and then picking up speed. "I can't imagine anyone adapting to that much change unless they looked always to the present or to the future but he does know it, Joe. I just don't want it to be lost."

"Me either," Joe assented. "But what he knows aside, Claire, he still has a life to lead, a life he chooses. If anyone found out who and what he is, can you imagine what life could become for him?"

"Or for those who love him?" she asked perceptively and sighed. "Too much to hope for...but...his story. The origins of the game: allegory or actual?"

"A little of both, I for why and how he heard it, I think that was true but the whole tale was a diversion--"

"--a diversion," Claire said at the same time and smiled tightly. "This is truly serious."

"Deadly," Joe said grimly.

Angela Ruth turned out to be not quite what MacLeod expected -- not that he could have vocalized what he expected. Given Claire's professional demeanor (garden hose notwithstanding) and her academic lifestyle, Mac might have expected either a counterpoint of age and circumstance or the exact opposite. What he got was a hawk- faced blonde amazon with biceps as big as his, half Claire's age, and the shy and retiring demeanor of a Catholic schoolgirl. Had she been a charter member of Hell's Angels he could not have been more surprised. His only saving grace was that Joe was obviously equally startled and Methos was plainly and simply amused. Which prompted enough pride on MacLeod's part to overcome surprise with charm.

Methos managed a more familiar greeting and Angela folded him into an embrace reserved for a much loved friend. "I can't believe you kept this a secret from me!" she scolded, but her smile at MacLeod was one of pure pleasure. "I am very glad to meet you, Duncan," she said in throaty alto that spoke of jazz singers or too many cigarettes.

The hand she extended was firm and far more delicate than the rest of her, callused and with the nails trimmed short and neat, long fingered and strong. Mac had met career swordsmen with a grip less sure. Claire had already shed her jacket and the wine Methos presented their hostess was taken gratefully and opened.

Claire's prediction was dead-on, the guests led immediately to a table set and ready, food already laid out that did not require being kept hot. MacLeod and Joe sat down, Angela's insistence that they begin on their salads unable to be refused as she had Methos open and pour the wine, then began unloading the burden of food from the stove. Claire emerged re-dressed and slightly fresher looking in time to serve their guests, the awkwardness of introducing new people to her lover set aside for a moment as plates were filled and checked and items ferried from counter to table. It took MacLeod only a few minutes to recognize food as Angela's armor...breaking down her natural proclivity toward shyness with topics neutral and easily held with either knowledge or expertise. Food was good or it was not -- in this case it was -- and the recipes were flying before the salad bowls were cleared.

"These are new," Methos observed, holding up the hand-molded plates, convex sided square plates with blue and tan glazes washed across their surfaces in random patterns that nonetheless reminded the view of a desert landscape.

"Mmm," Angela said setting her wine glass down. She sat directly opposite Joe, next to Angela with Mac at the foot of the table and Claire at the head, Methos to Angela's right next to MacLeod. "Last of that cobalt glaze...seems to have fallen out of fashion. Again," she snickered.

"This is amazing work," MacLeod commented and held up ceramic handled spoon. "These too?"

Angela flushed but grinned. "Yep. Popular among the 'back to naturals' set." She smiled at his compliments and Joe's then launched herself from the table to get more bread.

"See if you can talk her into giving you a tour of her workroom," Claire suggested with a wink at MacLeod. "This stuff just pays for the rest."

The idle chat continued, the forced social atmosphere actually doing as MacLeod had hoped, diverting his lover for a time and providing Mac with a glimpse of the life Methos might have led for years to come. Might have, had not Mac reappeared to rip his world apart once more. It was so very much like the circumstances and events of their first meeting, Mac could only swallow the bitter irony of it. No matter Methos' claim that he had allowed the meeting, wanted it to forestall any further murderous intervention of the Survivalist's plans by a particularly skilled Highlander. Mac could only wonder at how different Methos' life would have been had he followed through with his instructions.

Or how different his own might have been had Methos been the one to fall. Of course, if you'd never been born Immortal none of this would be of the least concern to you now, he reminded himself. The examination of should have beens and could have beens availed him nothing but despair and there had been quite enough of that in that last forty-eight hours.

"Where are the kids?" Methos asked when the majority of food had been eaten and coffee was brewing. He was on his fourth glass of wine -- MacLeod and Joe had been counting. The comment about children caught elder Watcher and younger Immortal off guard.

"Downstairs, in the basement," Angela said and checked the table. "But if everyone is finished I can let them out to help with the dishes."

There were no protests or requests for seconds and Angela rose, even as Mac turned his gaze to his lover to find a glint in his eye and a grin threatening his otherwise sober face. "Plates on the floor," Claire said and suited action to words as she heard the basement door open. Methos was the first to follow suit and Mac and Joe did the same more out of amazement than anything.

Then understood completely when they heard the scrabble of claws against the wood floors and the excited yips. Two bounding, roughly tumbling golden retrievers slid into the dining room, falling over each other in their hurry to reach the treat they knew awaited them. They paid no mind to the humans at all but found the plates unerringly, slurping up scraps in a rush to out do one another.

Claire lifted her now near spotless, if not exactly hygienic, plate up with a smile. "Saves on rinsing water."

Joe started laughing and MacLeod followed, Methos leaning forward, elbows on the table and holding his wine glass carefully between his hands as he grinned at his friends. "Jake and Sasha," he introduced the furry beasts to the two men, Joe's plate-cleaner first then MacLeod's.

"And this is Prudence, their mother," Angela said when another dog emerged, muzzle grayed but liquid brown eyes as anticipatory as her children's. Treating her as the regal lady she was, Angela presented her own plate to the Matriarch of the fluffy clan and watched while she licked delicately at the plate, her children keeping a respectful distance with only the merest growl. Done, she ambled over to MacLeod and lay her head in his lap.

It took no encouragement or even permission for Mac to stroke the soft golden down of Prudence's head, gratification instantaneous as the great feathered tail began fanning the air as a metronome countdown to her absolute adoration of the Scot.

Not to be left out, Jake, made the same foray into Joe's lap, nudging at the blues-man's hand. The dogs made no attempt to jump up, docile as newborns.

"They are beautiful," Mac said as Sasha presented herself shyly on his other side.

"Lousy watchdogs, but yeah. We like them," Claire said fondly and bent to help her mate pick the plates up off the floor and carry them into the kitchen. Methos rose as well, to gather more dishes, a wave of his hand keeping his friends seated as he moved to help their hostesses.

Methos returned with the coffee, moving with grace and ease between and beside the two women, a frequent visitor to their residence, Mac guessed and found himself smiling, shifting from near despair to fierce hope in a heart beat.

This is what I want, he thought with a clarity he had felt only once or twice in his four hundred years. He wanted to have such a life with Methos, to be able to move together through their lifespans in the intricate and comfortable domestic dance that Claire and Angela shared...a dance that had plenty of room for a third from time to time. He had felt that way with Little Deer, with Tessa, had wanted it with other partners in his life. He wanted it with Methos. That mortals, with their short lives, could manage to find such a balance argued not at all well for the superiority of his own race as some claimed. How superior can any race be that cannot adjust to the needs of someone else? Claire and Angela settled, showing Joe Jake's rather impressive array of tricks, Methos the last to enter with a cake already sliced. He set the plate down but before he could sit, MacLeod caught his hand, eyes meeting briefly before Mac let his gaze move to Claire and Angela; Claire sitting, graying head bent as she tried to coax Jake into a roll with the promise of a bit of bundt cake. Angela sat on the arm of her chair, one hand on her partner's shoulder, laughing, blonde hair and gray, the difference in their ages both more apparent and making no difference at all by the casual intimacy between the two women.

A glance back at Methos revealed the easy smile he had managed all evening had vanished, replaced by a longing Mac had never seen before on his lover's face. Without a word he pulled his lover close, down onto the arm of MacLeod's chair, steadying him. The resistance was minimal and Methos took it further, bending to kiss MacLeod. There was no need for pretense or much restraint among such a host as this. Friends who would and did understand were rare.

The moment passed as Jake finally managed his trick and was rewarded, Joe's laughter reasserting the turn of events for their dinner party with coffee prepared and cake shared.

Dessert finished, Angela was coaxed into showing MacLeod her workroom, in the basement. Joe passed on the tour as did Methos, helping Claire finish the clearing up and keeping Joe company.

The basement was finished, the narrow windows cleaned to allow in as much light as possible into the expanse. It was warm but not unbearable despite the kiln set into a corner and vented to the outside. There was a stack and more of wood nearby, the ax explaining the calluses on Angela's hands as much as anything. Finished work was set aside, boxes and straw packing in evidence.

"I ship a lot...about eight outlets along the east coast," she explained, showing MacLeod the commercial work she did: dinner sets and utensils, glasses, cups and all manner of bowls. The working trade she called it. "Then I do these," she offered shyly, turning on a lamp to better show off her work.

At her nod, MacLeod reached out to touch the sculptures. They were vases, vases such as might have been produced from any number of cultures from the ancient ports of the Aegean or Mediterranean, to the stylized figures of the Aztecs. Except instead of the figures being painted and glazed onto the clay, they were raised, three dimensional figures and some bas-relief, figures that twisted and danced along the smooth clay as if they might step off any moment.

"This is amazing," Mac said softly, his own keen eye and an appreciation for the artist honed after twelve years with Tessa Noel creating magic under his eyes every day. Each one was unique and some even stepped away from the patterns of more ancient work into the realm of fantastical: tree stumps hiding tiny faeries and other mystical creatures in the knots and twists of their ancient rough bark, Gargoyles leaping from the sides of a cathedral tower.

"This is for Claire's son Paul. He's getting married next month," Angela said holding up a two handled vase that might have been an amphora save the creatures traipsing up the sides and around the base were drawn from Native American art. "He asked for this -- his bride is part Cherokee. She gave me the designs."

"It is beautiful, Angela. You are very talented. Claire's son?" he asked because she had brought it up.

She set the vase down. "She has a daughter too, Jenny. We are," she grinned. "Grandparents -- grandmothers actually. Jenny is only about four years younger than I am," she supplied with the assurance of a woman who had few secrets.

"Nice to be close to your children," Mac said quietly, thoughts already moving to the man upstairs.

"Hmmm, yes. Claire made sure of that when they were growing up. Not a pretty thing but Jenny and Paul turned out fine," she said with only a hint of bitterness.

"What happened?" he asked because he was interested. Angela had such a frank manner, once her initial shyness was worn away.

"Usual," she said as if she expected him to know and, Mac realized, there was no reason she should not. She was in no doubt that he was Adam's lover, they were of an apparent age, she and MacLeod. "Jenny was sixteen and Paul fourteen when Claire and I met. She had already started divorce proceedings and it seemed there would be no contest about the kids. Until I got brought up as an example of her unfitness as a mother. Accusations of being a lesbian didn't sit well with the courts twenty-years ago. Still don't. It didn't matter that Paul and Jenny were great kids, obviously well-loved. Suddenly she was unfit."

"But you won?"

"No, we lost. Of course two years later Jenny came to live with us anyway and Paul, too, when he hit eighteen. They still keep in touch with their father but the christening of Mark -- Jenny's son -- was a little tense even after fifteen years. Do you have any children?"

Mac shook his head, biting back the bitter comment that rose up without him wanting it. "No. Not yet," he a said with a forced smile.

"Adoptions are easier now," she said kindly. "Adam seems to like kids...Mark is very fond of him," she added with a sly smile.

"We...we haven't discussed it," he said tightly and watched Angela pull back, figuratively.

"I'm not trying to pry..." she said earnestly.

"Nor have you," he said with a grin. "Just...we've been apart for awhile."

Angela turned out the light and led him toward the stairs. " I know that ride too," she said. "I spent five years away from Claire after Jenny got married. Needed time to think. When I came back, she pretty much said it was a stay or go proposition -- she was too old to be bouncing back from another failed relationship."

"You stayed," Mac said as the reached the top of the stairs.

"I'd have been a fool not to," she admitted candidly. "Not that we haven't fought but..." she shrugged her shoulders with a grin.

"Kids for you?"

"We are still talking about it," Angela said quietly. "But I am forty, Duncan. If I want to have children, it had better be soon. But to raise a child -- I was more of a friend to Paul and Jenny, although they say I make more Mom noises than Claire does sometimes. Claire is more worried about what to do if something happens to her -- and it might. Her family doesn't exactly have great health records. Her mother died when she was fifty-two."

"I was going to get jealous," Claire said before any other words could be exchanged as they stepped into the hallway. "Mr. Dawson has informed us that he was on a plane this morning," she added with a faint smile at MacLeod.

"That was a cue, in case you missed it, MacLeod," Joe called from the dining room. Mac grinned.

"I guess that means we should be leaving then," he said and went to collect coats and companions.

Goodnights were quick, Claire extracting a promise from Adam to stop by her office in the morning. "I need to make sure I didn't dream today," she whispered in his ear then gave him a kiss and the other two men as well.

Joe's hotel was not far from Claire's house, just off the campus and they made arrangement for Mac to pick him up in the morning when Adam went to class. The rest of the drive was mostly spent in silence until they pulled up to the house as if with the loss of their mortal buffers, the rest of the day's events was brought back into focus.

"Maybe we should have let Joe stay here," Mac commented as he closed the door behind them and secured the lock.

"No," Methos said shedding his coat. "I don't want any mortals close to us if something...He'll be fine at the hotel. He has his own work to do."

MacLeod stared at him for a moment, then nodded. "His Chronicles...his journals. You knew he would record what you said today."

"If I hadn't wanted someone to know, I wouldn't have said so much. I think, for now anyway, it will go in his own journals rather than your Chronicle." The older Immortal headed for the kitchen, not bothering to turn the lights on as he sought the refrigerator.

"You drank nearly an entire bottle of wine," Mac commented but accepted the beer Methos offered.

"Takes the edge off. Unfortunately for us, it takes a lot more than a bottle of wine to keep the edge off," he said, taking a long drink before moving again.

Mac followed, recognizing a certain restlessness in his lover's movements. His own decision to defer to Methos was beginning to wear on his nerves but he swallowed his frustration, unwilling to push Methos any harder than his lover had already been pushing himself. These constant emotional swings were not normal to Methos' nature as Mac knew him, recognizing that the control Methos was exerting was incredibly fragile. He was not overly afraid of what might emerge if that control slipped but he was fearful of that the lack of control would make Methos much less cautious than he had been, and far more vulnerable.

That he could tell his lover was still holding back information was no stretch of logic or experience. When Methos dived back into his office, Mac left him, preferring to shower and change into sweats. When he sought out the older Immortal, the man was still sitting at his desk, staring blindly at a blank computer screen. Cautiously Mac reached out and laid a hand on one narrow shoulder, feeling the tight muscles there and the almost imperceptible spasm that followed his touch. He pressed a little harder and let his other hand come to rest on the opposite shoulder. Methos made no sound as MacLeod's large hands began a firm but gentle kneading of those muscles. After a few minutes, however, Mac felt some of the tension leave and Methos' head dropped forward.

Sliding his hands down across the shoulders, Mac pressed his grip into the upper arms and coaxed Methos up, guiding him toward the bedroom. Once there he stopped Methos from removing his shirt, preferring to do that task himself.

"Thinking of becoming a body slave, Mac?" Methos asked softly.

"That would depend on whose body," Mac returned without changing expression or lifting his eyes from where his fingers worked the buttons of his companion's shirt loose.

"It's not actually so bad a life." The hazel eyes were shuttered away as MacLeod reached up to push the shirt off Methos' shoulders and twisted to lay it on the dresser. His hands moved back to his lover's waist, unfastening the jeans and pushing them down as well, along with the underwear. Once past the narrow hips, Mac pushed Methos gently down, having him sit on the edge of the bed while he finished pulling his clothes off. When he turned back from setting them aside, Methos caught his face in his hands, regarding him seriously.

"Do you remember our first time? Not during your dark quickening, not at the base, but at the hotel in Bordeaux?"

"I do. I was... terrified...not of what I wanted but that you would leave. That I wouldn't have the right words to make you stay," MacLeod said, catching his hands and laying a kiss against each palm.

"I was afraid I wouldn't have the strength to go," Methos murmured, resting his forehead against MacLeod's for a moment.

"And now?" Mac asked but his only answer was the soft press of Methos' lips against his own.

Whatever other words MacLeod thought to speak were lost or silenced as Methos gently explored his mouth as if it were their first kiss. His lips tasted MacLeod's before he pressed deeper, Mac welcoming the tentative foray of his lover's tongue with light, teasing touches of his own. Then he returned the exploration, suckling Methos' lower lip delicately, feeling the moistness of the soft skin, savoring the smooth texture. His tongue delved deeper and was captured, caressed, suckled. He rose up and felt Methos yield under him, laying back. Mac followed him down, stretching his length against his lover's and lifting and flexing his hips as Methos pushed at his sweat pants. Free of the cotton, Mac rolled onto his back, pulling Methos with him, their mouths only parting to catch a breath here and there.

The caresses started slowly, fingers meeting briefly before Methos moved his hands into his lover's hair, the tips tracing small circles against Mac's scalp. Mac emulated the patterns against his lover's back and shoulders. Their skin was warming where their bodies were pressed together and Mac moved, shifting his legs apart so Methos lay between them. With a sudden rush of emotion he couldn't explain, or if he could explain could not voice, he pulled Methos tightly against him. "I want to hold you close forever," he murmured against Methos' ear before capturing his mouth again.

"I will never be farther away than this, " Methos replied solemnly, laying his fingers across Mac's heart, love and reassurance burning as brightly in his ageless eyes as the stars burned in heaven.

Forever was too long and destiny to uncertain for Mac to grasp at the moment. He was almost afraid to let go, irrationally certain that Methos might vanish if he did not hold tight, hold close, and hold on. As if sensing Mac's desperation and confusion Methos caught his lips again, gently. The kiss shifted as Methos moved his mouth along MacLeod's jaw in a series of tiny bites and kisses before tucking his head against his lover's shoulder. Mac continued to rub his back, the circles widening and moving lower along the planes of his shoulder blades to the gentle curve of his spine. Spreading his fingers wider he slipped his palms over the muscles there, then across the rise of Methos' buttocks and back again, smiling as he felt Methos press his groin tighter against Mac's.

Mac moistened the fingers of one hand and, with delicate care, felt along the crease of his lover's buttocks, parting the muscle and probing. Methos' fingers stretched through MacLeod's hair as his lover moved, trying to adjust so Mac could find the opening he was seeking without sight. The older Immortal tensed slightly as the first finger entered him slowly and carefully, his cock beginning to harden against MacLeod's which prompted a like reaction in the Highlander.

A second finger and Methos relaxed again, pushing against the probing fingers, his breath beginning to come in short, warm pants against Mac's shoulder. Mac kissed the back of his head, raising his knees as he pulled Methos slightly up and toward him. His lover moved his hands, putting them flat on the bed beside MacLeod's head so he could kiss him and still pressing against the fingers now beginning a slow stroking deep inside him. At the first thrust of Methos' hips against Mac's he pulled his fingers free, silencing the soft moan of denial that escaped his lover and pushed upward again, rolling Methos onto his back and kissing him.

"Wait," Mac murmured with another kiss and then lay two more: one at Methos' throat and the second on his belly just above his navel before rising from the bed to go into the bathroom.

Methos tried to stop him, his hand reaching out, but he did not want to lose the warmth now building through him and Mac was back in moments, laying something on the bed above his lover's head before kneeling beside him and bending his head to kiss him again. Mac spent only moments on the parted lips, moving down to nuzzle and kiss the hollow of Methos' throat, letting his lover's scent wash over him. Methos' hand traced a path along his chest pausing to toy with the fine dark sprinkling of hairs there before drifting to his breasts, the long fingers tracing small patterns around and over his nipples until they rose into small pale buds. He rose then, pushing Mac's head up so he could tongue the sensitive flesh, curling around the younger man's kneeling form.

Mac caught him and held him, letting his head drop back at the exquisite sensation of Methos' tongue and teeth teasing his flesh. He reached, freeing a small tube from the bundle on the bed and opened it. The slick gel was warm in his hands and he slipped his fingers once more along the long curve of his lover's back, then across his hip to slip between his legs, forearm brushing the hardened length of Methos' cock. His lover's mouth opened in a gasp against Mac's skin as he pressed at the hidden opening, Methos' arms wrapping securely around Mac, face still buried against the bronzed skin of MacLeod's chest. Methos raised a knee, facilitating the entry and probe, arching slightly toward Mac as a second finger entered him then a third, pressing deep, the touch grazing his inner flesh until it reached the bundle of nerves inside him. Sensation exploded within him and he almost lost his grip around Mac's waist and hips as he curled inward.

Mac moved his free hand behind Methos' neck and shoulders, leaning in, easing his lover back onto the bed again and renewing his efforts with the gentle rhythmic strokes, pausing when Methos' hips began to raise again. He kissed him, less gently, pressing his chest into the fingers once more pulling and teasing his nipples. If he could have melted his body into those clever hands he would have, taking Methos body and soul into himself where he could keep him forever safe. He moved again and heard Methos moan, Mac smiling smugly at his lover's response, needing to hear his pleasure as well as feel it.

Methos apparently had the same idea as MacLeod's own concentration slipped when his lover's hand slipped between them, gathering both their cocks in his grasp and stroking, rolling the firm shafts of flesh against each other, his other hand tweaking one of the taut nipples until a shudder ran through Mac and his exploration of the inner recesses of Methos' body stilled.

He had to regain control of this languid foreplay and quickly but it was hard, so difficult to concentrate on pleasuring Methos when his partner held a skill equal to or greater than his own. Mac did not want to move too quickly or forcibly, though. He had already dominated his lover in the worst way possible and he was a little stunned to find that despite all else, Methos seemed unafraid that the domination enacted on the mountainside would emerge again in the bedroom.

Guilt rippled through him as he stilled his caresses, capturing Methos' slightly parted lips gently as he moved over his lover, his groin beginning to ache with his own impending release and felt Methos shudder beneath him as he tried to hold back his orgasm. The muscular thighs parted in invitation and Mac's eyes burned as Methos reached up to slide his fingers through the dark damp curls to pull MacLeod's mouth more firmly against his own. There were words whispered against Mac's lips that he couldn't hear or understand, each one followed by the sweet pressure of Methos' lips against his skin. Each kiss sent the blood roaring in his ears so loudly he couldn't think, he could only move, poising himself to breach the tender opening of his lover's body once more.

Drawing back from a long, lingering kiss, Mac gripped his lover's thighs, raising Methos' hips, then positioning himself against the tight aperture that still glistened with the gel he had pressed so deeply into his lover. Methos released a breath, then caught it again as MacLeod pressed his cock into the tight opening. MacLeod slowed his entry, feeling resistance and then the yield of flesh and muscle. Once breached Methos arched into the impalement of his body with a moan enriched by pleasure, grasping at his own cock as Mac levered himself up on his arms, legs outstretched to begin slow, deep, hard thrusts into his lover. His eyes locked with Methos', watching the gold-green color move more to emerald as the waves of sensation began washing through the older Immortal's body. The taut chest strained and Mac dropped down, suckling and nuzzling first one rose-colored, hard nipple then the other, almost bucking against his lover when Methos' hands slid along his back to cup his buttocks and part them. A moist finger penetrated Mac and he groaned, head tossed back at the dual sensation of penetrating and being penetrated. Methos was straining against him, gasping and wriggling his hips to encourage his lover. Eyes locked and held until Mac regained some control and pushed back against the pleasuring finger and then thrust deep, watching his lover's face, the dilation of the pupils almost complete.

Until Methos could no longer maintain eye contact, intensity building as he closed his eyes, neck added to the arch of his body as his head pressed into the mattress, swallowing the cry that threatened to escape him. That cry came out instead as a series of short panting moans that punctuated each thrust MacLeod made into his body. Deep muscles closed around Mac to embrace him, friction and feeling and heat swirling together in a dizzying, near overwhelming wave of emotion and sensation. The small spasms began, precursor of the orgasm building within him. It was anticipation that finally redirected MacLeod's attention and his control, what little coherent thought remained to him was focused on the sheer ecstasy of being sheathed within Methos' body, of the rub of flesh as he strained to find a rhythm and a feeling he could let go of and say "Yes!"

His body was overheated and sweating. His eyes fixed on Methos' hand as his lover pumped and stroked his swollen cock, the heavy shaft already weeping and Mac was torn between wanting to taste that pearly fluid and reaching completion for himself. He dropped to his knees, arms trembling too much to bear his weight any longer as he hooked them around Methos' knees and continued to thrust, driving flesh into flesh. The change in position triggered Methos' orgasm and the slender body convulsed against MacLeod's. Methos was gripping his arm brutally, holding on to the only solid thing in his universe. The cry that followed shocked Mac into his own release as he dropped his lover's legs, falling forward as his body surrendered, pulsing hot and fast into his lover's body as Methos' semen warmed his skin, the scent of it, of his lover, almost as powerful as the physical sensations. He was aware of heat and coolness across his skin, of the feathered touch of Methos' fingers against his hair, of the tight strain in his lover's body, and the hard press of muscle against his chest and along his waist as Methos' thighs closed around him, clinging to him as they both relaxed under the after shocks.

The heart beat under his cheek was fast and strong, the pale chest rising and falling quickly but gaining more control as Methos came down from the plateau and Mac found himself breathing with his lover, trying to pace his heart to the one pounding in his ear. Methos' fingers continued to toy with his hair, once more tracing the small circles and patterns against his scalp. For MacLeod's part he rubbed at the still tight muscles of his lover's thigh, easing the tension there before finally tuning his head to kiss the center of Methos' chest. Methos swallowed as MacLeod continued to lay light, butterfly kisses along his skin until he reached his throat. There he paused to nuzzle the soft skin, to taste the sweat dampened flesh and nip at the corded tendons before Methos guided the moist lips to his own. A soft sigh escaped him as Mac reached once more for the cloth beside his head, unwrapping the bundle to pull out a damp, cool towel to wipe across his lover's abdomen and his own, clearing away the slightly sticky residue of Methos' orgasm from their skin.

"Always prepared?" Methos murmured as Mac tossed the towel in the general direction of the bathroom.

"Something like that. I had it in mind that once I got you in bed I wouldn't let you out again for awhile," Mac said with a smile that transferred quite easily to Methos' lips on a kiss.

"I can think of worse torments," Methos said quietly then chuckled. "Although technically, we are on the bed, not in it," he corrected.

Mac studied him with a wicked twinkle in his eye and then reached behind him to grab the edge of the quilt and pulled it over both of them and rolled. He laughed at Methos' near-squeak of surprise but Mac ended up on his back, Methos across his chest and clinging to his shoulders, both of them cocooned tightly in the bright fabric. "And now?" he queried with a teasing smile.

Methos wriggled in the tight confines of the wrapped blanket and Mac groaned at the stimulation where their bodies were tightly pressed together. "Well, I am definitely close to being in," Methos said wickedly and moved again and for a moment MacLeod saw nothing but heaven.