Storm Front
by Maygra de Rhema

continued from Part Four...

"Oh, stop looking like a fish out of water, Duncan!" Claire scolded at the poleaxed look on MacLeod's face as she and Angela began unloading the van. A crib, a rocking chair, boxes and bags filled with Heaven knew what emerged in alarming amounts.

Very slowly Mac turned to look at his erstwhile housemate, glaring at the broad grin on Joe Dawson's face.

"What do you want me to say? 'I don't know nothin' about raising no babies, Mista' MacLeod!'" he drawled, completely unrepentant. "And neither do you," he added pointedly before turning to lead Lisa MacIan to the room he'd prepared for her and Tradere.

"Wait!" Claire called and Lisa stopped, Claire and Angela both hovering at the bottom of the ramp, two sets of eyes fixed on the boy the stranger held with such casual care.

Lisa smiled and passed her charge off to Duncan. "I'd forgotten he might be getting a family from all this." She turned and let Joe show her into the house.

Angela came forward, ducking a little to catch the child's attention, Claire on her heels, but the older woman's gaze never left MacLeod's.

"How is he?" she asked and she was not talking about Tradere.

"Alive." Mac said and would say nothing else for all the hardness that crept into Claire's face. It was all he knew that he could tell her.

"Duncan, what's wrong with him?" Angela asked. The Highlander's attention shifted swiftly, turning Tray in his arms to look for injury or distress. There was none. His attention had been caught by the bright silver topper to Joe's cane from the moment the Watcher picked them up at the airport. Obligingly 'Uncle Joe' had unscrewed the bauble and Tray had been turning it over and over in his small hands for the better part of an hour.

"What do you mean?"

With gentle fingers, Angela pulled the bauble away from the boy. His hands went still, gaze darting away to fix on where shimmers glanced on the shadowy porch from reflections of the car window. Claire stepped up next to her, fingers wiggled in front of Tray's face without acknowledgment. Then just as fast he turned around to reach for her dangling earrings.

"Motor control seems fine," Angela said. "But there's no..." With deft fingers she plucked the earring from her lover's ear and held it in front of Tray, just out of his reach. Bird-bright eyes followed the movement but the moment Angela moved her face into the same space the earring had occupied, the gaze and the attention was gone.

"Lisa says he's a little slow...he doesn't talk yet." MacLeod said, a quiet fear gripping him slowly as he watched the two women watch Tray.

"He's what...nearly three?" Claire asked, looking at Duncan.

"Thirty-four months," Lisa supplied, returning from her tour. "No one to talk to but me," she said calmly. "And I'd not much to say. His mother spoke to him constantly," she said. "There's nothing wrong with him." She smiled at the boy. Tray ignored her as he did everyone else.

"Have him tested, Duncan," Angela said and held her hands out, smiling as MacLeod gave the boy up. "He feeds himself?"

"Of course. He's no baby, although sometimes you have to coax a bit. He won't eat if something has caught his fancy." Lisa said sternly. "I've taken good care of him."

"No one is questioning that, Lisa," MacLeod said. "He just...he pays no attention to the people around him."

"Like his mother, then. She'd no time for people either. Or not much. She spent time with Tradere, though. Hours and hours talking to him, holding him."

It was not a particularly reassuring image.

"Why don't we go see your new room?" Angela said to the boy, carrying him past the other adults. Claire said nothing more after flicking a glance between MacLeod and Lisa, moving toward the van to pick up a box. Lisa seemed thoughtful for a moment before following Angela.

The crib was sturdy, solid wood, used before, but still serviceable. "What do you think?" he asked Claire.

"I think Virginia Tech has an excellent child development program with a practical out-clinic. I think you should make an appointment for one of the psychologists there to see him as soon as you have gotten every bit of information from Ms. MacIan as you can. And I think that 'Alive' is a poor excuse for an answer." Her broad back was presented to Mac as Claire entered the house with her box full of clothes and toys.

I think I have a problem, MacLeod admitted to himself. He had noted Tray's silence and his distracted ways but Joe was correct. His experience with children was slightly deficient and what he did know was one hundred and fifty years out of date. If Tray did need specialized care, it was not something Mac could leave to Joe. As much as he wanted to see to the boy's welfare himself, however, there was the remaining commitment. No, an imperative to find Methos and either help him or -- and Mac was considering it quite seriously -- kidnapping his lover and keeping him hidden or captive until something could be worked out with Marcus and the Survivalists.

Angela had  Tray seated on a pile of pillows and books in the kitchens, carefully lining up Cheerios on the table. She would put one small round on the table and Tray would take it and eat it. Chewing carefully, eyes never wavering from the spot where the next Cheerio would appear. It was as if they appeared there by magic for all the notice he gave his benefactor. Knowing MacLeod was watching, Angela waited, a handful of Cheerios in plain sight in her palm. Tray was still staring at the spot on the table. He made no attempt to reach for the food in Angela's hand. The level of his concentration and attention was uncanny for a child his age -- MacLeod knew it and it chilled him.

Another Cheerio appeared and the whole cycle began again. If Angela placed a piece on the table before Tray was through with the one in his mouth he would ignore it until he was done, then pick it up. One at a time; over and over.

Without a word, Mac moved away. Joe had cleared out Methos' office...or most of it. He had moved the computer and the personal and sensitive material into his own room and had a second bed set up. Tray's crib went into the corner, near the rear window.


He finished adjusting the frame and turned to face Joe. "Don't ask me. Not about Tray, not about Methos, not about anything," MacLeod said softly. "Maybe later, but right now I don't know what to say."

Joe pursed his lips and nodded. "I'll start some dinner," he offered and left MacLeod alone. From the kitchen, MacLeod could hear Angela and Claire and Lisa talking. Full house and MacLeod had never felt so alone.

I hate fighting in the rain...hate fighting in the dark...hate fighting....better to fight than to lose! Triumph and fear and satisfaction and despair as the head dropped and the body fell after. I hate this part...

MacLeod felt every muscle in his body go tight a fraction of a second after he came awake. He buried his face in the pillow, muffling the scream as agony ripped through him. Echoed agony. It shut off a few seconds later and he almost screamed again in relief only to have the relief subsumed by fear. It had shut off so quickly, so suddenly.

He couldn't wait any longer. Whatever Tray needed would have to wait. This was the third Quickening Methos had taken in less than a week. There would be nothing left of his lover if he kept this up.

Which was probably his plan -- focus on the goal, forget the rest, bugger the cost. Irrational anger flared through MacLeod, partly in response to the reflected Quickening partly due to his own helplessness. He rose, cinching the drawstring on his sweats, idly noting the fact that he was losing weight. He moved quietly, glancing at the two closed doors before heading into the kitchen.

Two glasses of Scotch later and he stopped trembling either from anger or the after effects and felt calm enough to make a phone call and check on flights to Europe.

By the time Joe woke the next morning, MacLeod had switched to coffee but it didn't take a genius to realize the man had had no sleep. Checking his messages, Joe knew why.

They couldn't even talk about it. It lay like a sharp blade between them, too sharp for either of them to pick up without cutting the other.

"I am going to ask Claire and Angela to take custody of Tray," Mac said at last when Joe had managed his own coffee and sat down across from Duncan at the table.

"Because you are going after Methos." No question. Joe was only surprised it had taken this long. "Or what's left of him..." he managed with perceptive acuity and Duncan had to smile. Sometimes he wondered if it weren't he and Joe that were supposed to be in a relationship; the Watcher was that much in tune with his every thought.

"I need..." MacLeod began. "I need you to stay close and keep an eye out, Joe. Tray isn't Immortal...outside the Watcher's jurisdiction."

"Claire is no slouch in the protection division."

"Claire, for all her heart, might have second thoughts about shooting someone in cold blood." Mac said darkly, meeting and holding Joe's gray-eyed gaze and watching his face harden.

"I understand."

"Do you? Joe, anyone that comes after Tray is likely to be Immortal. So, my friend, do I leave you a sword or an axe?"

Joe swallowed, wondering just when Duncan MacLeod had stepped out of the honorable arena of the game.

About the same time he had, he realized. This game was not the one the Watchers had been recording for thousands of years. This was a game within a game and his mind shifted back to the tale Methos had told about how the rules became rules.

"And the Prize?" He had asked.

"It rather depends on which bloodline wins. For the children of Cain it will be Forgiveness. For the children of Abel it will be Vengeance."

And which are you pursuing now, my friend? "I think a chain saw will do the trick." His grim response was accompanied by an equally grim smile.

"It doesn't look like so noble a pursuit now, does it?" MacLeod's voice dropped, not into bitter undertones but as if the Highlander had lost something precious, something important.

Maybe he had. Maybe they all had. Certainly there was no innocence left to any of them -- not even the child asleep in the spare room.

"But we have to treat it as such, Mac." Joe lay his hand over the Highlander's. "Because that, my friend, is what Methos is fighting for. What you have fought for. You can't lose that. The tale Methos told us...the parable or whatever it was, what Darius believed, that somewhere, some how, in all of this madness the world will either find forgiveness or restore a balance. That isn't any different than what you have believed your whole life."

" 'The conflict between the two is what drives the Game,'" MacLeod murmured and squeezed Joe's hand. "I hope to heaven you're right." They sat in silence for long moments before MacLeod glanced at the clock. "Nearly six. Claire should be up. She and Angela were coming to take Tray to the clinic for the tests. I'll talk to her. Them."

"But you don't have any doubts, do you?"

Mac pursed his lips for a moment. "No. I spoke to Claire about it before I left. She...she would be willing to adopt him for 'Adam's' sake and thinks Angela would do it as well. I had the paper work drawn up by Methos' solicitors while I was in London."

"Nice to own your own law firm." Joe's observation brought another smile to MacLeod's lips.

"Then ye'll have no further need of me will you?" Lisa spoke up from the doorway. She looked neither piqued nor surprised, standing easily with Tray in her arms, still in his pajamas although Lisa was dressed.

MacLeod looked guilty enough. "I can find you a position, Lisa. Although Claire and Angela may still have need of a nanny, especially if Tray...needs special care."

"No need to worry about me, Duncan MacLeod. Cassandra left me well enough off. And if the ladies need some help, I've no pressing engagements." She moved into the kitchen, Tray balanced on her hip as she filled his cup with juice then settled him into the high-chair Claire and Angela had brought while she fixed breakfast for not only the child but the two men as well.

A glance exchanged between the two men went unnoticed by Lisa as Duncan rose to dress, running his fingers over Tray's hair lightly, expression thoughtful.

"I would advise you to get a second opinion, Mr. MacLeod," Dr. Angelus said, pulling his glasses off and laying them down on the table in front of him and glancing between MacLeod and Claire Ramsey. "I don't think my diagnosis is too far off and there are more tests I would like to run but to be honest, labeling Tradere as autistic is not exactly a complete diagnosis."

The word registered with MacLeod only peripherally as he stood up and went to the observation window, watching as Angela, with Tray on her lap, turned the pages of a bright cloth book. Other children and their tenders, their parents, were in the room. Some showed all the classic signs of the mentally and physically challenged, sweet faces marred by distinctive genetic mutations that made their eyes odd, twisted their limbs, hampered their ability to be accepted in the big bad world -- and not an iota of it showed in the laughing, smiling, rapt faces. He could not help but make the comparison. Tray showed none of the physical signs of genetic redundancy. He was beautiful, bright, a joy to look at, to watch, easy to love, to be enchanted by -- but he might as well have been under an enchantment, a spell. And Dr. Angelus, for all his forty years of experience, did not have the magic word to break the spell.

"His motor skills are above average for a child his age. He isn't deaf but his attention seems to be focused on a fairly narrow range of sounds -- the human voice doesn't seem to be one of them. He is just...completely disenfranchised from interaction with other people."

"Treatment?" MacLeod asked softly, aware that Claire had better questions. Would need to ask them if he was going to surrender this child up to her care.

"There are some therapies that show promise, experimental since so little is known about how and why autism occurs...but there are no promises here. Just a little hope."

Mac had to smile at that. He turned around, putting his back to the glass, wanting to hear Claire's questions and knowing that any decisions they came to would have to be tempered by the nature of what...who Tray was. His lineage, his inheritance would not be well served in an institution and Claire and Angela would not live forever. Tray might.

At his glance and nod, Claire launched -- catching Angelus off-guard as much by her directness as the fact that she was asking questions when all of Tray's papers showed Duncan MacLeod to be the boy's father.

Forty-five minutes later, Claire had exhausted her questions, much to the good Doctor's relief. He left them to consider their options and Claire rose up to stare at her lover and the child she had come to care for in such a short time.

"You know I will feel like a total shit if I walk away from this," Claire said tightly.

MacLeod placed both his hands on her tight shoulders and rubbed gently. "Don't. Please...this wasn't part of the plan, or even a consideration. He'll need full-time care. He'll need to be somewhere where no Immortal would dare come after him which means holy ground."

"For the rest of his life?" Claire asked and then swallowed. "Forever?"

"I don't know. If he stays like this...if there is no way to connect him back to our world, then maybe. At least until it's over..."

"Oh, Christ, Duncan!" Claire whispered, eyes filling and she wiped savagely at them.

"I could move him back to Seacouver. Make some modifications to the cabin and keep him there. It's on holy ground. But I can't stay with him...not for now."

"I know what Angela's answer will be." Claire said with a faint smile as she watched her lover cradle the boy, not at all put off by the fact that he responded to her not at all. "I've already lost her, you see," and her smile was broader.

"She'll have to know...what he is. Who he is. What I am," MacLeod said, grinning as well when Angela glanced up and saw them. "What Adam is."

"I thought..."

"Claire, this isn't the way most Immortal children are raised. If I could have kept him a foundling I would have but this is...Tray is special in more ways than one. For all I know he may be the last Immortal born. He is Methos' son. Either reason makes him a powerful pawn in any number of games."

"Give me your perfect solution then, Duncan," Claire said calmly.

He drew a breath and studied her, then moved to the table to hitch one hip onto the flat surface and crossed his arms. "I have...had made inquiries...into a piece of property. A church just on the West Virginia line. It has a fair amount of acreage and isn't too far from other people. Joe has agreed and I think Lisa would stay -- to care for him until I... get back. With or without Methos."

"That sounds like a back-up plan." she observed leaning against the glass and waving at Angela.

"They are all back-up plans, Claire. Even were Tray not Immortal, he needs..."

"Someone to be with him every day. Almost every minute," she said softly. "Which Angela would do and gladly. He's no different from any other child in that, Duncan. Let me rephrase the question. What are you afraid of?"

"I am afraid the Survivalists will come after him. I am afraid that Cassandra has done something that might not show up for years -- that her interference is the cause of this. She was...she was a powerful woman, Claire. Capable of great goodness and great evil, like all of us. And in the end, she was not sane. Tradere...and you know what his name the product of a rape. Not Cassandra's but Methos'. He was conceived for one purpose -- as revenge."

Claire paled a bit. "It's a frightening thing when the epic tales of revenge and hate become real and tangible," she murmured. "I may have to rethink my whole position on the mythology of ancient civilizations to encompass something more than allegory. Answer me this, Duncan. Do you want Angela and I to raise this child? Because all other considerations aside, if I say yes to this, if Angela says yes to this, he will be ours. Our son. If Adam...if Methos..."

"When..." Mac said softly.

"When Methos returns, then. Will he want him?"

Duncan met her gaze and chewed in his lip for a moment. "I don't know. And even if he did, I don't know that it would be the right choice for Tray." God, that one hurt. "I think he'd agree with me. He has no legal claim on the boy, Claire. Not without extensive blood tests and court battles which, given our natures, aren't likely to be viable choices. As far as the law is concerned, Tray belongs to son. Cassandra was very careful and it would take years of battling international law to break that edict. As much as I love Methos, I won't jeopardize Tray's future for him -- he made damn sure of that."

She nodded. "So. Does this church have running water or what?" She wasn't looking at him, but at her lover, at the child who had fallen asleep in Angela's arms and at the future.

An honorary Scottish heritage was bestowed upon Angela for her stoic acceptance of the tale she was told. It was a private honors ceremony, performed entirely in Duncan MacLeod's mind, but it came with a great deal of respect and even more gratitude. How much of it she believed was open for debate since she loudly protested Duncan 's offer to prove his claim with the edge of a very sharp knife. Likely she thought them all bewitched but since she had been bewitched herself by a pair of solemn hazel eyes and small hands that wove graceful magic with every movement, she kept her opinions to herself.

The legalities would take months. The construction, which started almost immediately on Angela's indignant, "What do you think?" would take less time but it was not immediate. Duncan bided his time and his temper with a great deal of restraint and exercise and meditations until he thought he would go mad.

Which was not a choice. One madman in the family was quite enough, thank you. Since the aborted Quickening of a week ago he had felt nothing from his lover at all, and that had kept him up nights with even more consistency than the echoed Quickenings had. Life flux.

Tray remained at the cabin. Claire and Angela had not the room to house their soon to be son and his protectors and, despite Angela's protests, their very adamancy about the threat made the whole situation more real to her than any example of Immortal healing. They spent as much time as they could at the cabin, Angela usually showing up at lunch time to spend her afternoons with Lisa and Tray. All of them tried to find some sort of pattern in their lives, including listening to Joe play on Thursdays. Uncle Joe was convinced Tray had a fine, if restrained, appreciation for the blues. He became quite the club favorite once the "Poor thing!" comments had passed.

Within a month the construction on the church was nearly done and Mac was completely at the end of his patience. The Watchers had reported nothing, he had felt nothing. The only thing keeping MacLeod from bolting onto the first plane was the sure knowledge that Methos was still alive. MacLeod was absolutely certain that if his lover lost his head he would know.

They were waiting to do the final walk-through on the converted chapel, rising early to meet Claire and Angela to take their van to the site. Lisa had been convinced to stay on for a few months, somewhat flattered that she had been consulted on the plans to the extent of her room and the one reserved for Tray. She had proved...if almost too willing to accept whatever was thrown her be both an excellent nanny and not a bad housekeeper. Talents Claire felt she and Angela might have great need of at least in the beginning.

Lisa MacIan was no great cook, however, but she made hearty, if plain, meals, which Duncan and Joe dutifully dug into as they waited for Tray's new parents. Halfway through their meal, Joe watched Mac stiffen and turn, rising without a word. He rose as well. He knew that look well enough by now. He didn't even have to watch Duncan go for the katana before he had Lisa by the elbow. "Take Tray. Go into the bedroom." His urgency and MacLeod's sudden departure moved her more than the words as she scooped Tray up. Joe hurried, stopping by his room only long enough to grab his gun and two extra clips. Thank God for speed-loaders, he thought, grimly, following Lisa into the bedroom and closing the door, locking it and pushing the woman and her charge into a corner, away from the windows.

For himself, he moved toward the front window, looking out to see MacLeod hit the yard, sword ready, looking uncertain as he was approached by not one, but two Immortals.

"Sons of bitches!" Joe snarled, and without thinking about it smashed out the window with his cane, eliciting a yelp from Lisa. He fired just as Mac moved to meet the first Immortal. The second Immortal went down cursing, but not dead...not from any lack of intent on Joe's part.

The fight moved out of Joe's line of sight and he swore. "Stay here!" he snapped at Lisa who could only nod, holding Tray close to her chest.

A Watcher for twenty years and Joe still could not get rid of the sick feeling in his gut at the sound of steel blades coming together. It didn't matter that MacLeod was probably the best of the best. It didn't matter that Joe himself had long ago vowed that non-interference was policy not law.

He hit the porch just as his man got to his feet again, staring at Joe in shocked surprise, then anger as Joe raised his gun. "Far enough. You want him, you have to take your turn or so help me, I will put a bullet in your brain this time and take your fucking head myself."

Eyes raked along Joe, assessing, calculating and deciding the elder mortal was not joking and his resolve was strong. Joe did his own assessment, noting the fair hair and blue eyes. He didn't recognize the man and years of training prompted him to ask.

"Jeremey Haller," The man grated out. "Why? It will do you no good."

"Like to know what name to go on your tombstone," Joe said coldly, and shifted his gaze for half a second to see MacLeod finish the fight and drop. "Stay still," Joe hissed, his attention once more on his prisoner.

Then Lisa screamed. Joe fired, doing as he promised by putting a bullet in the man's brain before turning. He saw Mac jerk his head around but it was all the Highlander had time for before The Quickening overcame him and his cry and Lisa's mixed.

Speed was not a talent Joe possessed but he faked it pretty well and found a third man, with a sword. Tray was in the corner, Lisa fighting the man with anything and everything at hand, which at the moment was a floor lamp. He was less interested in her than getting around her.

"Drop it!" Joe said firing once, past the man. He saw the man think, saw him make his decision. He lunged, knocking Lisa aside, getting a hand on the boy's arm. Lisa screamed again, the cry of a lioness protecting her cub, and dove at the man, giving Joe no clear shot as he moved into the melee only to have Lisa thrust back at him, into him, the man's sword following the shove.

Joe felt the blade slide through Lisa, his cry of surprise turning to one of pain as the blade edge slide along his side, scoring not puncturing as Lisa let out a startled mew of sound. They both went down, the fall separating the sword from Lisa's body, blood covering the both of them as the man reached once more for Tray and managed to pull the child up and under his arm.

Joe shifted, frustrated and shocked tears burning his eyes, blurring his vision as he reached for the man, getting a grip on his ankle and pulling. The Immortal stumbled, dropping to his knees, dropping Tray who made only a small sound. The man twisted and kicked viciously at Joe, losing his grip, sending the Watcher into near-unconsciousness with another kick to his head and grabbed at the boy again.

"Pick on someone yer own size," MacLeod rumbled, dark eyed gaze livid with anger as he cold-cocked the man, then ran the katana through his heart before stooping. Reaching for Lisa's throat, he closed his eyes when he found no pulse. He turned, eyes raking over Tray who was still sitting on the floor, staring down at his own shoelaces. With gentle strength, he pulled Joe free of Lisa's limp weight and got him into a chair.

"I'll be okay," Joe said thickly, fingers closing over the gun MacLeod handed him, his other arm coming around Tray as the boy was lifted to his lap. It was the grim face of a stranger that grabbed at the dead Immortal's shirt-back and dragged the body through the house and out.

Joe waited, too long before he heard the clash of swords again. Damn you, Mac! You should have just taken their heads! But had he not, less than two hours ago helped remind MacLeod of who he was? What he stood for?

He expected a third Quickening but there wasn't one, heard MacLeod's voice raised and darkened by anger, stressed but only because Joe knew him. There was the sound of a car and doors slamming. A woman's cry and Joe's gaze fell on the body still sprawled ungracefully on the floor at his feet before it was too much. Tray's small body lay against his chest and his head ached and he managed to thumb the safety onto the gun before he stopped caring about much of anything.

I am far too old for this, Marcus Constantine thought as he hung up the phone. What was it about MacLeod anyway? Aside from his very real admiration for the man, even affection, it sometimes seemed as if MacLeod were watched over and blessed by the old gods -- victorious in battle and in love.

Marcus envied him that, among other things. Not begrudged, but envied. He could not even twist his thoughts around the latest turn of events to blame the Scot. Three to one, however honorably the challenges might have been issued and MacLeod still prevailed.

You have chosen your defender well, my old friend. His gaze followed the path of the moon across the darkened skies, not seeing the estate but the land as it had once been. And will you be coming for me next?

Someone was but Marcus relaxed fractionally as his butler opened the door to admit a visitor.

A Celtic princess: on second thought, she was actually more like the avenging arm of the Celtic Deities. Rich sable hair was pulled back in a braid, leaving the oval of her face without distraction, not unlike the moon goddess she, no doubt, still worshipped. A barbarian when barbarians were the fiercest people on earth...the Romans had much admiration for them. Her dark eyes met his flatly, shadowed and expressionless. She changed so little -- but then none of them changed much, not in appearance, only in personality. Not a social call, obviously.

"Cierwyddyn," he greeted her, inclining his head and offering her coffee from the silver service. She agreed without speaking, taking a seat on a richly tapestried divan and accepting the coffee with all the grace of the Queen Mother.

Marcus sat across from her, folding his frame gracefully in Queen Anne chair. "I wasn't expecting you for another month, at least." His gaze swept over her and Cierwyddyn met it evenly, well aware that Marcus was regarding her as breeding stock. He was so old fashioned in some ways, for all that he seemed to have slipped into the twentieth-century with ease. Or not, she amended, taking in the old world elegance. No, he had accommodated the century to fit his own privileged station as he had in Rome centuries ago. The General was still there, just disguised under a veneer of societal indulgence and concern for the propagation of their race.

"I'll keep this short, Constantine," she said, having taken a single sip from her cup and set it aside. "You have escalated this...conflict...of yours beyond what we are willing to accept. Immortals do not hunt Immortals in packs. Whatever threat you see in the ancient or in MacLeod, you need to reassess it. If you persist, you lend no credence to the argument that we have any reason, as a race, to survive at all. Call your dogs off." Her tone was not that of a request, but of a Queen commanding an underling and Marcus was aware of it and all its underlying threats.

"You do not deny my right to protect myself?" he asked mildly.

"You can protect yourself any way you damn well please," she hissed at him. "You can even challenge Methos or MacLeod outright -- I don't give a rat's ass. But you do it as the Game is played else you find another hunting pack out there hunting for you."

"I am so delighted to have your permission," Marcus said with a smile. "But as you know, I have no interest in either of their deaths. Duncan is a friend and Methos and I have a long acquaintance."

She rose, dark as midnight in gaze and demeanor, bracing her hands on either side of his chair. "Your long acquaintance did nothing to stop Cassandra did it? Now she has vanished and her child with her. What bargain did you make with her, Constantine?"

"Only that I would see her child safely raised. The same bargain I have with you, Cierwyddyn. And I have not failed you, nor your children," he said, anger flattening his tone of voice.

"Nor your own. I am not alone in this, Marcus. But if you persist, you will be alone -- and friendless. Altruism fits none of us."

"You sound like Methos."

She stood up. "He has a point. Be wary if I agree with him completely. It would not bode well for your survival -- or anyone's. You know he will come for you --especially if you pursue this vendetta against Duncan."

"Hardly a vendetta!" Marcus said rising and irrationally irritated. More so given the news he had received earlier.

"Call it what you will. There are two Games here, Marcus. The first is older than you...or Methos. I have not forgotten that even if you have. Darius never forgot it either." She flipped her long black braid over her shoulder and tightened the belt on her leather coat. "You can play in both, but you cannot have your own unless we agree to play as well and you are diminishing the number of players as deliberately as Duncan has been in defense of his life. He has the right. As you do. Call the dogs back to heel, Marcus. Or we will."

She said nothing else, turning on her heel to leave without a backward glance and leaving Marcus to stare angrily after her.

An anger that in no way interfered with Marcus returning to the thoughts and plans he had begun before his visitor arrived.

I hate that smell. It was the first sense that returned to him -- the antiseptic, harsh chemical scent that reminded him of cold labs even when he was toasty and warm. Which he was. Perhaps if he kept his eyes closed he would drift off to sleep again and when he woke the smell would be gone.

The faint sound of movement close by caught his curiosity before his plan could be implemented though. He cracked an eye open and then the other, seeing MacLeod sitting beside him, a book in hand. The man did not look well, or rather, he looked like he had been up all night watching over a friend in the hospital after having taken two Quickenings in short order.

"You know, a cup of coffee would be nice," Joe said softly by way of alerting his protector that he was awake.

The relief on Duncan's face would have been painful, had not the dark eyes suddenly come to life and the generous mouth curved upward in a welcome smile.

"I can probably manage that," Mac said, reaching for the nurse's call button, then setting his book aside and rising up to lean on the bed rails. "Welcome back."

"Thanks," Joe said, shifting in the bed to find out exactly why he was in here to begin with. A twinge in his side explained it and brought back a rush of memory that cleared away the last of the drugs in his system.

He gripped MacLeod's wrist. "Tray...and Lisa?"

A soothing hand closed over his. "Tray is fine. Claire and Angela have him. Lisa is..." MacLeod 's face grew harder. "She and Cassandra are together," he said delicately, not sure if someone might suddenly enter. Joe nodded, releasing his wrist. He understood the implications of what MacLeod had said and done. Lisa MacIan, by her own words, had no family. They knew who had killed her and that man had been dealt with permanently. Bringing police into it would serve no one, but it rankled MacLeod, disturbed him deeply that she had died and her death had to be obscured. Eventually, Joe knew, there would be a headstone in a cemetery somewhere and there would be flowers. Someone would remember her -- forever if MacLeod could manage it.

A nurse's voice came over the intercom, gating on Joe's nerves but the promise of breakfast was worth it. Not that he would eat the food but the coffee would, indeed, be welcome.

"So what's the story?" Joe asked, letting Mac help him sit up. Twenty-four stitches in his side from a mishap with an axe and some slick steps. Plausible. The wound had been deep but not close to fatal. It had scared Mac more than anything and Joe knew what that took. How MacLeod had managed to think straight at all was beyond Joe's ken. Claire and Angela had arrived and despite some minor hysterics from Angela, had been a big comfort and help to Mac. Amazing how a threat to a child put all other things in perspective.

"They'll let you out as soon as you feel up to moving," Mac said. "But, if you can stand it -- I'd like you to stay another day."

"Clean up, Mac?"

The other man smiled and nodded. "Something like that. And I know you can take care of yourself, Joe, but there is no guarantee that we won't have other visitors. I need a day to get what we do need from the house. There's enough of the renovation done on the chapel to let us move in. Not exactly the best situation but the safest that I can come up with at the moment."

"I'll stay, but I won't promise to behave," Joe said with a grin but his insides were protesting his easy acquiescence.

"If I can get done today, I swear I will come get you tonight." The promise was made softly.

"I'll manage, Mac. Do us both a favor and try to get some rest, huh? Because right now you look like you should be the one in this bed, not me."

"I will," Mac replied then stood up as the nurse entered carrying a tray and a bright smile. "Clothes are there." He inclined his head to the soft valise on the window ledge. "I'll be back in time for lunch," he said and slipped out the door as Joe tried to fix his coffee while the nurse did her nurse-thing.

"Good friend you have there," she commented, fitting the blood pressure cuff around Joe's arm. "Been here most of the night."

Joe nodded, sipping at what had to be the worst cup of coffee he ever tasted -- it was heaven. "So he is. So, nurse..." he looked at her name tag. "Nurse Camilla Rose. What are my chances of getting a poker game going to pass the time?"

If Claire was a little short-tempered with the movers, they said nothing. They were being paid a great deal of money to make this move as quickly as possible and Mr. MacLeod had already tipped them even before they started working.

Duncan had made the finishing touches within the promised day. There was still construction and finishing to be done but the important things had been taken care of. Heating and air-conditioning, water, electricity, phone lines and ...the fence.

It was tasteful, it was well done, it was solid and had no doubt lowered the insurance rate on their new abode and it reminded Claire of nothing so much as a prison. The original structure had been bordered by a low stone fence...low enough to sit on. The stone had been modified, iron-work panels installed, a cut-work vine and leaf pattern giving it a decorative finish and making it pleasing to the eye. Its purpose was to provide a barrier, a way of keeping Tray from wandering off as he was wont to do. But Claire could not escape the subliminal effect of being closed in.

The rest of the structure was equally solid looking and had the reason for the structure not slapped the good Doctor of Philosophy in the face every time she looked at it, she might have even found that it appealed to her. More stone, large windows, high ceilings, the sanctuary cleverly remodeled to be more a large living area combined with a kitchen and divided by an island. Angela loved the space, and Claire was willing to be caught up by her lover's enchantment.

It was still a prison. If not for her then for the tiny person who had no more care or thought about his new home than he did for anything.

Doubts were normal, she knew. She had raised two children but this child -- even without his obvious mental and emotional deficits, this child had enemies he didn't know and didn't deserve. Holy ground would only keep those enemies from fighting on the premises. It would not keep them out and MacLeod did not intend to stay for very long and watching him, Claire knew he had already stayed far longer than he wanted to.

It was just a lot of adjustments to make. The house gave them plenty of room. Claire and Angela and Tray would live in what used to be the chapel, offices and anterooms changed to be bedrooms and offices and a nursery and a studio for Angela. The smaller rectory had needed less work but it was modified to suit the needs of Joe and MacLeod for the time being. The cabin had been closed up, alarms installed but basically abandoned until its owner returned. If he returned.

She was contemplating the unfairness of it all, stressed by directing the movers and had just about decided she needed to take a walk when Duncan appeared beside her. "Need help?" he asked.

"I need air," she said, and he nodded. She gave a last few directions to the movers, smiled at her lover as Angela walked Tray through the house and headed outside. "How's Joe?" she asked after drawing in a deep breath of air. It was a beautiful day. Recent rains had left the air clean and bright and just a bit cool.

"Settling. Fidgeting. Glad the rectory is one story." He grinned and Claire returned it with a dry chuckle as they began to walk around the inside perimeter of the fence. They did so in silence for long moments as they traversed the back of the property, Claire glancing at the lovely patio set that had been set up in the middle of what had once been a garden and would be again once Angela got her hands on it.

"The papers came through today," Mac said finally. "You know you don't have to sign them. I can arrange for you to be his guardians in absentia -- Joe as well."

"I must seem like the biggest coward in the world to you," she said quietly, reaching up to pull a leaf from the low hanging branch of a sweet-gum tree.

"No. Just the opposite. Fishing for compliments, Claire?"

It was her turn to laugh. "Maybe! Oh, Duncan...I really expected my old age to be quiet and full of research and grandchildren and twice a week teas with the other aging faculty and their wives. I did not expect to spend those years raising a child who gives the term 'special needs' a whole new twist. But, when I am less scared -- I can't see myself doing anything else either. Angela is smitten, totally in love, but every parent wants something better for their child, something better than what they had, opportunities and futures they never dreamed of. We can't offer Tray that. The best we can do is hope he is content with his life -- and we'll never know." She wiped blindly at her eyes and stared out and up, seeing the hazy blue rise of the Appalachians behind her.

Then leaned into MacLeod's strength when he put his hands on her shoulders and followed her gaze. "When I was a very, very young man," he spoke quietly, musingly. "The only thing I ever thought of was marrying a fine woman and raising fine sons. When I found out I couldn't do the latter and the woman I loved at the time died, I still had that same dream. Not very long ago I met and trained a young man I thought of as my son. And he died, at my hand. Because of the Game, because of who I am, because not all evil is wrought by external forces. Methos' past..." he paused and Claire covered the hands on her shoulders with her own and felt MacLeod clasp them. "All the things you say parents hope for their children, Methos hopes for his own. But it takes less than you might think to provide Tray with a better childhood than his sire had," he said thickly. "He asked me to love his child and I do...but I love Methos more. I have wanted children all my life and now that I have one in my grasp, all I can think is how unprepared I am to raise this child alone...or even with help. Because trading Tray's life for Methos' isn't fair to any of us. Not for Tray. Not for me. But Tray can be loved, and cared for, and given as much of a life as he can experience. It's all Methos wants. It's all Tray needs. I can and have made sure there is money enough that he will never need for anything material, be it food or schools or clothes. But I can't buy love for him. I can't buy the kind of caring he needs and deserves. Even if I find Methos, Tray is as much a foundling as any other Immortal I ever knew, as I believed we all were. I know you have doubts. And I know clichés are the last thing you want to hear, but I swear to you, Claire, if ever the phrase 'love is enough' could be applied to a situation, this is the one. Knowing that no matter what deprivations we see in his life, it will still be a thousand times better than what Methos grew up with."

He fell silent, too well aware that his words had not said what his heart felt. He didn't want to try and convince Claire of anything.

"You, should be a Televangelist, Duncan MacLeod. You do have the tongue of the inspired." She turned to face him a half smile on her face. "If you are right, then there really is no issue because whether or not I could love that little angel was never in doubt. So, let's go sign some papers. I am sure I would have been bored with my view of retirement within a month anyway." Slipping her arms around his waist, she hugged him, a rare physicality for her and Duncan knew it as he returned the embrace and dropped a kiss on her graying hair.

Although the walk back to the house was equally silent, it was with much lighter hearts and Claire even managed to see her fences as mildly comforting rather than confining.

Now if she could just manage to free MacLeod from his prison as well. Or Tradere from his. Somehow she thought the latter might actually be easier than the former.

Since sleep had finally crashed over him with all the subtlety of a freight train, Methos found it a little rude that she would disappear like a thief with no trace of her passing. Rude, but not particularly surprising. When she was gone she was gone. There was no purpose whatsoever in even trying to coax her back at this point.

Sighing, he rolled over to his back without bothering to turn the light on, staring at the ancient plaster ceiling and tried to convince himself that the very large stain and cracks in the plaster, now dipped in shadows from the middle of the night paintbrush, were not nearly as likely to give way to the weight of the room above as he thought. It was a hell of lot scarier looking in daylight and he'd had a harder time convincing himself that the crack was just that and not some great universal summary of his life in signs and portents.

In the darkness he decided it looked like a really bad attempt at découpage, but the stain might pass for a cherub staring down at him if he looked at it long enough.

Or the crack of Doom. His darker thoughts niggled at him and he gave it up, reaching over to turn on the lamp beside the bed and glanced at the crack briefly. Crack of doom it was, then.

He rolled to the edge of the bed and stretched, allowing himself the luxury of a loud groan as the tight muscles, so expertly molded into the wrong position by a mattress nearly as frightening as the ceiling, finally gave way and sought their natural shape -- or close to it. He had a knot in his lower back that would not give way, and a backward stretch produced a second groan which prompted a pounding on the wall from the next room and an invective for him "to keep it down!"

It set him off into a burst of giggles...the idea that his aches and vocal responses to them was annoying his neighbor. Most likely because he wasn't getting any. Neither am I! he thought and the laughter wouldn't stay contained. More pounding and Methos tried, only to find that stopping the laughter had the unfortunate effect of transforming it into something less of a release and more painful.

He stopped himself cold, shutting down amusement and grief with one swift command that left him leaning across the back of the single ancient chair in the room in something so close to pain, it hardly merited the distinction of grief.

And pulled that damnable muscle in his back into yet another looping knot. Were he a better conjurer than idiot, he would summon a set of hands to work that knot into oblivion. Were he not so tired and deserving of every ache and pain he felt he could imagine the broad flat palms, callus-roughed and tender, working on his lower back with the patience of a Scottish Saint.

Were there Scottish Saints? He couldn't remember. Angels - one at least although Duncan would absolutely fall over laughing if he ever heard Methos call him such a thing.

He shook himself and decided that his neighbor would have to suffer a bit more. He needed something to distract him from the spiral downward and a shower seemed to be the most available recourse and would hopefully address a lot of things -- or if not address, at least sort them into stacks for mailing.

"I may be a lunatic before this is done, Mac" he said aloud and stripped off his clothes, gathering more and his sword to take into the bathroom. He'd been nearly caught once with his ass bared and his sword too far way to do him any good. He'd have to tell Mac at some point that they really needed to install those shower massage things in the bathrooms. Enough water pressure in pulse mode would send a would-be attacker staggering backward for enough time to gain a better weapon.

He'd also have to talk to Mac about their timing. Those two...I could kill Constantine for that alone... Quickenings Mac had taken had come hard on the heels of one another and Methos had only been able to ride them through...his latest trackers had been less than a half a day behind him and even so it was a close thing.

His lover had been royally pissed-off and scared although the source was undefined. He could guess though. That had been nearly three weeks ago. Nothing since for either of them. Marcus was good. He hoped the airline bills needed to ferry his half dozen distaff sons were coming out of his pocket hard and fast.

Maybe he should have made this an economic campaign.

The shower helped. It battered and barred the door to sleep at any rate and he packed. Awake as he was, moving on was a good choice. Slipping away in the middle of the night could only serve to better baffle his trackers, who were having a hard enough time keeping up with him.

That, of course, was the point. Were he not so deadly serious in this endeavor, this would almost be fun.

More fun if you had Mac to pull into the odd alley, here and again. Evade trackers, laugh ourselves silly and then ...

It was the 'and then'. Physical separation from his lover was proving far more difficult than he had expected. He, who at times in his long life had been celibate for years, decades...never quite a century, was suffering. Now, away from Duncan but for a few months, missed him like a limb. It was as if something had been torn from him that could not be replaced. It was the loss of that warm body pressed to his back, or sprawled across his chest that made sleep such a fickle creature.

He wished Duncan had not been so hurt and angry in Germany. He would have gladly stripped down in that filthy warehouse and given up everything.

His hand was on the phone before he thought about it. Dialing, the operator making the connection...a ring and....

Disconnected. The new number is...unlisted.

Duncan's cell phone or Dawson's but he dismissed the idea even as he set the receiver back in it's cradle.

The rest of his packing was done with jerky movements and a willfully checked violence as he fought the disappointment with cold reason. Contacting Duncan now, at this point, was foolish and weak and could easily undo everything he'd worked for...everything Duncan had suffered for.

He stopped and dragged in a great breath to quell the looming sobs. His chest was tight and pained and he was shaking under the onslaught.

It took too many long minutes to banish and when it did finally fade to something manageable he was no longer sure he really did have the strength to keep on.

"Hold fast."

God, I'm hearing things now! Methos stiffened and then reached for his sword as the signatures of at least two Immortals washed through him. His larger bag was forgotten, the smaller duffel slung over his shoulder as he leaned against the door to listen and then cracked it.

There was no one immediately visible outside the door and he grabbed the larger bag, pushing out and to the rental car. He shoved both into the passenger side from the driver's side and then moved, his sword out and blocking but he was still slammed against the car door. A kick sent the man back.

"Usually get a formal challenge," he snarled at his opponent. "Marcus' manners are slipping."

Another two blows and he backed away, aware he was being flanked. First the manners give way, then the rules collapse -- thus endeth another prime civilization.

The second man was less of a brute but he was a better swordsman. He needed his back to something and found at least a partial solution in the dumpster at the edge of the parking lot.

And felt a third signature.

"Three's the charm?" he said and engaged the better of the two. He would need skill and strength for this. The second he knew he could beat. He could only hope the third was not on the top of the skill set.

There was a cry, one he hadn't heard in centuries and quite suddenly he didn't need to worry about the weaker swordsman. His unknown ally had decided to test the waters.

The unlooked-for support gave him a boost of hope he hadn't expected and sorely needed.

It definitely gave him the edge. The start of a Quickening close by distracted Master Swordsman Number One and Methos could only pray that the hotel was truly as empty as it seemed save for his neighbor in number four.

The only thing that was good about any Quickening these days was the brief contact it gave him with Duncan. A salve for all wounds, even if the aftermath left him retching and battered and almost too weak to stand. But he did and in time to turn and face his would-be ally.

He knew then he should have lost the fight entirely because he was no longer in any shape to anticipate anything, least of all his own death. "Cierwyddyn?"

It was choked out of him -- a natural reaction to finding a sword through his gut.

"You and I need to have a little chat, Father," she said without a smile and then caught him as he fell.

"Here, drink this," a familiar, but not necessarily welcome voice floated out of the darkness and a hand reached behind his head to lift him. The liquid was cold, sweet and made him gag as the taste connected with his brain and then his gut, even before the liquid reached his stomach.

"Serves you right," he muttered as Cierwyddyn cursed when he managed to spit it all back up and onto her chest.

"Fine! It's by the bed if you want it!" she hissed at him and he heard her move away, the sound of running water and several very colorful curses assaulting his ears as she cleaned up.

He managed to crack one eye open and caught a glimpse of her, stripping her shirt off and replacing it with another. Re-dressed, she braced her hands against the vanity for a moment and looked his way. He closed his eye again.

"Oh, fuck you!" she snapped and came back out. A finger poked him in the healing wound and he yelped and batted her hand away, both eyes opening to stare at her accusingly as she sat on the edge of the bed.

"Why are you so pissed off?" he asked and gingerly tried to sit up. "As I recall, you killed me."

"Those are my children you killed out there!" she snarled at him.

"Well, they had to belong to somebody!" he snapped back.

She glared at him and then rose. Going to a cooler, she pulled out a bottle. Glancing at him she pulled a second and then tossed the bottle opener at him.

The beer didn't actually feel any better than the juice but he was better prepared and managed to keep the modest swallow down. He pulled at his shirt, stiff with his own blood. "How'd you explain this to the innkeep?" he asked, looking at this haven his errant daughter had brought him to. Part of him hoped she had pulled a muscle carrying his dead carcass inside. It was not the same motel...a better class, despite its generic furnishings.

"I didn't drag you into the lobby when I checked in," she said and leaned against the standard-issue dresser that matched the rest of the standard issue hotel room. Anonymous chains introduced by American banal it was almost insulting.  Nothing to distract his eyes or senses.

He rose, feeling slightly less chipper than he had, oh, in the middle of the Quickening he had taken, and looked around. At Cierwyddyn's nod he found his bag and pulled out a clean shirt, moving into the bathroom to change.

"It has to stop," she said loud enough for him to hear but not shouting and not a command.

"I know," he answered her back after a moment and finished washing the dried blood off his skin before shouldering into his shirt. "Stay out of it."

"I am already in it," she said, more firmly, coming to lean against the bathroom door. "I gave the same message to Marcus."

"Did you? How very...maternal of you, Cierwyddyn," he sneered at her. "Afraid the boys will hurt themselves?"

She hurled another invective his way, the rounded, soft features of her face hardening as if they had turned to stone. "Why are you doing this? What can you possibly hope to gain? Even if you meet with Marcus face to face--"

"If Marcus would meet me face to face this would be over," he snapped. "One way or another."

"Is that what you want?"

"They say if you cut off the head of a hydra, two more will replace it. I would very much like to see if that is true," he said and pushed past her.

She studied him carefully under downcast lashes. This was not a man she knew...any longer. Not the man she had met under another name so many years ago. That man had been a scholar, graceful as the dawn, quiet spoken as the whisper of snow across a frozen field. He had frightened her then for all his unthreatening ways, something in him less civilized than the others he kept company with, however briefly. He had roused her then to the superstitions of her childhood.

That the same man who sat so stilly in Rebekah's fine manor several centuries ago should be revealed as a myth had not surprised her. Nor had the fact that he had remained hidden so long. That one meeting, so long ago, had ended with him slipping away with none of them noticing -- disappearing into the shadows and between words like a ghost.

He had left them then, physically and philosophically, without argument, without pleas for reason and thought. "No longer my concern."

She had been angry then that this one, of many, could father a child and have no concern for its future. In these modern times it was not so uncommon. It had seemed a blasphemy then. What father could not want strong sons and daughters? What sire could not want the fruit of his loins to live past him, or survive into their own maturity?

She had been young and foolish. Her passions were not misplaced but misguided -- as Marcus Constantine's seemed to be...or Methos'. Save for the latter, she was no longer sure. Which man spoke the truth in this instance? She could no more fathom that than understand why the blow she had meant to separate Mehtos' head from his body had taken his life instead.

"I could have stopped you in the parking lot. You are losing your edge, old man," she said quietly, flipping the dark braid over her shoulder.

"Yes., I meant to ask you that. Why didn't you? Stopping me would end this as well. Please don't tell me its paternal love or I will vomit up much more than juice."

She didn't answer and Methos glanced at her. "I won't bed you anymore than I would bed your sisters," he said evenly and had the rare occasion to see the Celtic Warrior blush.

"It wasn't that...I don't want to be on Duncan's bad side either," she said lamely with a faint smile. It faded a moment later to be replaced by a look of horror. "You are doing intend to kill them all, don't you? Why?"

"To start over," Methos said wearily. "Cierwyddyn...whatever we started two thousand years ago has gone badly, stupidly wrong. It was a secret that never should have been told. Never known."

"In your opinion!"

"In my experience!" he lashed back at her. "Which may or may not count for anything. Dammit! He's not raising children, he's raising an army! A small one but an that will have access to knowledge and expertise and a plan that circumvents the game . Or so he thinks. He has a score or more Immortals that heed his call and his directives. Best you call him Caesar."

"That is madness..." she said. "To what end? If the plan is to increase our numbers, then what can he hope to gain? World conquest? Reveal our presence to the mortals?"

"He doesn't have to. Cierwyddyn, with Rebekah and Darius gone there is no check to his plans, no one to curtail him. He makes his decisions based on what he thinks will ensure our survival and avert the Gathering. But there is no balance. I disagreed with this some time ago, for my own reasons, but I never before sought to intervene. Without the voices of reason...of sanity...that Rebekah and Darius provided, Marcus marches alone. He knows where the children they are placed and when they will step across into their heritage. Did you look at those we fought? Immortals in their prime. Young but with skills that they should not have so early in their Immortality. He is not just finding homes for your children. He is training them...raising them...shaping their futures. But Marcus has never been a fool. What was the last challenge issued to you?"

She had to had been years. She had fought but save for one encounter, it had been decades since she had been challenged. She bit on her thumbnail and looked at the weary face of the oldest Immortal. "Both of you are mad," she said.

"Very likely," Methos said and sat down on the edge of the bed again.

"I should kill you both."

"That would work too. He sends children against me, Cierwyddyn. Your futures. Against Mac. Not by happenstance or chance but on purpose. Count them off ...who among us is left to sire your children save those Marcus has selected?"

"There are those we don't know..." she began and then thought again. Some. A few perhaps that had remained hidden. But if they were hidden, they were of no use -- or not to the present purpose that was driving this insanity. She understood Marcus' concern. At the rate MacLeod was going, he would win the Prize before the Gathering ever arrived. Not a bad thing save that those with less honor knew it as well. That lure was nearly impossible to deny -- as it was for Methos. She sat down beside him and took the long fingered hand in hers. "Does Duncan know this?"

He stared at their joined hands. Hers was smaller, blunt fingered and strong, not unlike her personality. To tell her what he could not express to Mac was not easy, but he had laid the trap that would spring not only on Constantine but on himself and he had no desire to see MacLeod trapped in it as well. "About the children, yes. Cassandra made sure of that. She was out of her mind but she may well have seen more clearly what Marcus was doing than I thought. He has placed none of her children that I know of,  but then Cassandra has been watching over her own children for a long time. Save one who ended up with someone who would care for him anyway...for a time," Methos said softly, unable to speak of the loss MacLeod had suffered. "And the last of them...since she didn't live long enough to see to them as well. She may have never meant to. She expected Mac to do that for her...and he has without ever knowing the charge she laid upon him. No wonder she hated him so much ...More than she hated me, perhaps." He turned to her, facing her and catching both her hands in his. "Learn to keep your secrets, Cierwyddyn. For five thousand years I have kept mine and I have survived beyond all odds. Let me finish this and leave the rest to you. For you, for Mac. For the children I have left."

"And lose you in the process..." she said quietly. "For that is the plan...that when all is done and only one remains...that secret will go with you. What about Duncan?"

Methos pulled away and rose. "I don't know," he said unsure, and sounding distant. "I think he will keep his silence, knowing what he does. Being who he is. I will not leave him defenseless against this madness though -- make no mistake and harbor no doubts," he said harshly. "But Duncan can be...distracted. I have tried to make sure he has a good reason for being so. "

"Your Cassandra," she supplied and Methos nodded tersely.

"He cannot fight all your battles for you but I think he will prove honorable in this one."

"But if we judge Marcus for what he knows and what he plans, then how can we not judge you as well?" she asked him and got her answer in his silence.

"You can't," he answered her tiredly then turned to her. "But you remember this well, daughter of kings, I have not tried to woo any others to my side or cause. I have sought no allies, offered no challenges that do not fit within the rules. I am not asking for quarter nor mercy...but I will ask for Justice."

"And forgiveness?" she asked.

"Not from you, nor from Marcus...nor your gods." His back was stiff, the hazel eyes the color of storm tossed seas, his mood as changeable as that vast force. "Nor will I give up my life so easily against the lives you have set forth."

She rose, recognizing the form, the ancient form and intent behind his words. "You have set a geas...upon yourself. Do you now lay it upon me as well?"

"I may never come to pass that you must act on it. There is no punishment for failure to do so. None that will be visited upon your head," he said solemnly

"But on the future."

He was silent, holding her gaze until she gave him a small nod and held out her hand to grasp his arm near the elbow. He returned the grip.

"I told Marcus to bring his dogs to heel," she said. "I could do no less than bring you to heel as well. I will think about what you have said," she murmured, remote and placid once more. "I cannot stop the Game...but I would stop the killing for a let us all think about what we have become...what we would become. I have seen enough war, great and small." She released his arm and caught his face to kiss him, at forehead, cheeks and mouth, a blessing, and to seal her own oath.

They felt the thrum of an Immortal at the same time and Cierwyddyn pulled away even as Methos reached for his sword only to stop and stare at her.

She gathered her things and moved away from him, her hand on the doorknob to the adjoining room. "You may tell him I was here or not. I think 'not' would be the better choice."

She was gone by the time there was a rap on the door.

"Interfering bitch," Methos murmured and opened the door, his sword laying on the bed.

MacLeod stood there, as stony an expression as Methos had ever seen on the handsome face. "The advice was that run I you through, leave a blade in your heart, have your body shipped back to the states and then chain you to the basement wall -- I am seriously considering it," Mac said.

"Nice to see you, too," Methos said and then had no time for any other words as MacLeod pushed himself into the room and propelled Methos backwards.

"Since your bloody head is still intact, I can only assume whoever just left was a friend." His expression was still set but his eyes raked over his lover, taking in the thinness, the haggard expression on the nearly gaunt face. "I am beginning to feel like a puppet in some bizarre Punch and Judy show."

Methos turned away. "Pawn... in a badly played chess match," he said, seeing the cooler as of supreme importance at the moment only to have MacLeod jerk him around roughly.

"No more games. I have found your son. I have made him as safe as he can be...but he's not mine," MacLeod said and his voice went husky and strained on the next words. "You are."

The pain in the last two words was sharp enough to replace the burn left by Cierwyddyn's blade. "Yes."

It was not what Mac expected to hear. Not this blanket agreement...not this answer to questions he had not asked yet. But it was there in the weary stance of the too-thin body, in the level gaze of the eyes that seemed feverish and bright. He had felt the Quickening earlier...knew the aftermath that followed Methos like a ghost. Except there was no ghost here, there was hardly anything left a frail thread spun too tight, he looked now at a man too weary to argue anything. Not broken...but not defiant as he had expected.

"What have you done?" Mac asked him, his frustration and anger evaporating. His lover was old and worn and too tired to fight with him or for anything.

Methos turned away again but the strong arms pulled him back, held him and he let his weight, his cares, and his plans fall to the floor around him while he struggled to remember that it was this ..this love and this man that had seemed so important once to cast his own survival aside...not his life, just the one point that had driven his life.

"You'll come home?" Mac asked him.


"You'll abandon this insane plan to take on Marcus?"


"You will let me fight beside you, if he pursues it?"


"You'll give up drinking beer?"

"Not on your life, Mac," came the answer and there was laughter beyond, strained, tight, almost a sob but Duncan MacLeod cared not at all as he held on and smiled at the faint chuckle that actually was heard.

Hold fast

They made no plans. MacLeod not sure what he would find at the end of the phone call forty-eight hours before. They ordered food in the room which Methos ate but with little interest until the end course when he asked about his son.

The name Cassandra had given their child was like a blow but Methos bore it. Tray's ...needs...were another blow and he bore that as well. That Marcus had sent Immortals after the child as well as MacLeod he did not take as well.

It did, however, accomplish something that Mac's mere presence had not -- it brought life back to the dulled eyes and passion back to the rich voice. That anger and fear were all that Methos had to give life to his presence did not sit well with MacLeod, however. He kept it to himself and tried to maintain the spark as they walked in the cool night as he described the arrangements made. The new house, the care and love this youngest son of the Immortal race could expect.

As Mac had suspected, neither Claire nor Angela needed to fear for their continued custody of the child they had adopted.

"Do you want to see him?" Mac asked him as they retraced their steps to the room.

"I don't know. I suppose I will have to...if only to assure Claire that I will not be a parent in absentia."

"That's not what I asked. Do you want to see him?"

Methos was silent for a long moment. "Yes," he said softly. But later, as he rested in the darkness with Methos once more the pillow around which he curled himself, Mac found himself not liking the answer.

Methos slept as one of the dead and Mac could feel in the suddenness of it that it had been too long since his lover had rested so completely. He held him, feeling ribs beneath his hand, the compact muscle even harder, the dark hair too long. There had been no joyous physical reunion save a kiss that spoke more of relief than passion.

He held on though, through the night, awake and aware, listening to Methos breathe, to the steady thrum of his heart. To stand Shield once more. When the dawn broke he did not move nor try to wake his lover, but watched the shadows move across the room, light dancing off their swords, both close to the bed. Methos' looked dulled. He would have to polish and sharpen it later.

It was well past noon when Methos finally stirred and MacLeod moved as soon as his lover knew he was not alone. Food was ordered and they showered. Some sparks rekindling but it was as much to reassure themselves that there was still passion there as to seek any kind of release or close the gap that existed between them.

Plane tickets had them headed westward by midnight, but there was no hurry. No need to rush home to anything that would not be there when they finally arrived and Methos seemed reluctant to push forward, hesitating as if he had forgotten something or was leaving something behind him.

By the time they hit Virginia and were heading home, some sort of equilibrium had reasserted itself.

"To Claire's?" Mac asked him as they pulled out of the airport.

"No...the house. Time enough..." Methos offered with a faint smile but had nothing more to say and MacLeod was not sure he wanted to probe whatever thoughts were hidden behind his lover's eyes.

He had expected no power but the porch light was on as they pulled up the steep incline. There was no sign of anyone. There was, however, some food in the refrigerator and beer, Methos noted with a chuckle. The bed had been made and the water heater primed. Much of the house and furnishings were still shrouded, but it was home.

The cold plate left for them was eaten as it was presented, Mac carrying it out to the porch while they sat and looked out, counting stars and exchanging comments on the changes Mac had wrought to the cabin.

"I can't believe Joe has stayed all this time," Methos said, leaning against the post, Mac comfortably seated between his thighs.

"Gained a family when you weren't looking," Mac said then broached the subject they had avoided over the last four days. "Is it over?"

Methos' fingers swept throughout he dark hair on Mac's head. "I'm not sure...a truce perhaps."

"You don't believe that."

"No. I don't," Methos admitted and set his beer down to slide his arms around MacLeod's neck. "Too much damage done on both sides."

The accusation lay silent between them

"Are we over?" Mac asked into the night.

"Damage done, Mac," Methos answered softly.

"Do you believe that?"

"Don't you?"

"Yes," MacLeod said quietly and moved turning to face him, hands resting on Methos' thighs. "But what is the point of being Immortal if not to have the time to try and repair it?"

The sigh that answered him was accompanied by a caress. "There is no point to being Immortal...not in and of itself, or Marcus and I would have no disagreement."

"Cain and Abel then," Mac said.

"If you like," Methos said studying the younger man. "Justice and forgiveness. Not right or wrong."

"Make me believe that," MacLeod said and rose offering his hand and pulling Methos to his feet.

A small smile quirked Methos' lips and he gestured to the porch. "Not au naturale?" he asked and Mac chuckled.

"Grass is wet, the porch is hard, but the bed is both dry and soft. Your choice."

"Maybe a comparative study..." Methos offered as an alternative. "But I say we start dry and soft."

"We usually do," Mac said with a wicked twinkle in his eye.

Had they moved any more cautiously it would have been mistaken for inexperience, Mac thought, as the familiar smooth texture of Methos' skin yielded under his touch. They had taken their time to prepare, to provide for comforts that would need no hurried or anxious substitutes. The familiar rhythms were lacking, missing due to their long separation or so Mac wanted to believe.

Still, with his lover naked beneath him he found his body fit as well, the taste of the pale skin was as sweet, the moistness of Methos' mouth still roused a hunger in him that no one else could satisfy. But it was not until the first needful joining was past that he found that part which had been missing returned to him.

Their heart rates slowed and steadied, matching pace with one another, their hands passed over sweat-dampened skin to soothe the trembling aftermath. Passion spent, the hazel eyes watched him and there, in the wonder he knew reflected his own, did something right itself.

"You didn't expect to come back," he said, tracing the sharp cheekbone of Methos' face.

"No. Even if I met Marcus, challenged him and won, no."

"Why then?"

"Because the fight became more important than what I was fighting for. I've learned that lesson a thousand times, Mac. I always end up with the same conclusion."

"Experience not all it's cracked up to be?" MacLeod asked him and felt the rumble of laughter in his lover's chest before he heard it.

"Something like," Methos murmured, letting his hands pass over MacLeod's upper arms. "And maybe all it does it let you see how little things change."

"I am glad your pattern runs true, then," Mac said bending his head to capture Methos' lower lip between his teeth briefly. "I would hate to be the mold breaker..."

"Mold maker, MacLeod. How did you manage to shape me into someone so like yourself?"

It was MacLeod's turn to laugh. "Oh no, you don't. I won't be your excuse for a conscience or for an ideal."


"God in heaven, I missed you," Mac said fervently, kissing his lover's chest. "How did you stand those two years apart? How did I stand them?"

"The same way we endured the prior four ignorance," Methos said softly and pulled Mac's mouth to his. No studied reacquaintance. He took what he wanted and found it given freely. Mac's mouth opened under the assault, feeding the hunger their separation had started and starvation had made them ignore.

"Say it," Methos demanded.

"I love you," Mac murmured and saw the flash in Methos' eyes. The challenge there and he rose to meet it as he had every other challenge in his life. "You are mine."

"Prove it."

"You first," Mac said his own eyes darkening.

"Mine." Methos caught his face again, claiming his mouth, tongue exploring every moist, soft surface until they both gasped for air and then again. Methos holding him tightly even as his lover shifted, pulling at his shoulders to roll him, roll them both until Mac was on his back and Methos lay atop him, spreading his thighs to either side of MacLeod's body.

MacLeod's fingers traced up his spine slowly, watching his lover arch slightly into that touch then lean forward as he moved his hands down, tracing to the cleft in his buttocks. His ass was gel-slicked and moist yet from their previous lovemaking and Methos trembled slightly as Mac's fingers played around the opening to his body.

The older Immortal bent his head once more, slowly exploring his lover's mouth then his throat, working his way down the still sweat-laden skin, mouth pausing over one dark nipple and applying more pressure when he felt one of Mac's hands hold his head. Mac jerked slightly with a low gasp as teeth closed gently over the bud of flesh, then chuckled as he got nearly the same reaction when he slid one finger into his lover's anus and felt the muscle twitch. A second finger and the teeth were removed, the nipple laved gently with a tongue before Methos rocked back against his hand.

Heat was already stirring in MacLeod's loins again, just from the warm weight of the body above his. The idea of being buried in Methos' body -- or vice versa -- was enough to spark a certain aggressiveness and he pulled his hand away, smiling at the near accusation in the hazel accusation that turned speculative. Eyes clashed, the challenge was offered and taken and Methos moved as MacLeod did, reaching for the thick wrists, only to find himself being flipped onto the bed. A twist and they were both crouched, not so much wrestling as maneuvering. It was playful and slightly ridiculous since they both wanted the same thing but the fight for it was as stimulating as any amount of foreplay. MacLeod lunged and for one brief moment seemed the victor when he claimed a kiss and felt Methos relax, only to discover his lover had squirmed from his grasp again and was suddenly behind him, arms wrapped around Mac's head and shoulders in a hold that would have choked him had it been serious. Methos was on his knees, the only way his slighter frame could gain leverage and the hard, hot length of his cock pressed against Mac's back.

There was a counter move and MacLeod rocked back and then forward, knowing it was too easy but gaining a certain satisfaction from flipping his partner over his shoulder. Methos landed on his back, looking up, Mac's grip securing his upper arms.

"Point," he murmured and MacLeod nodded bending down to take an upside down kiss. Their mouths parted and Methos' gaze flicked upward, the look sending a jolt through MacLeod that he could only nod in answer to and released his lover's arms. He crawled forward, slightly. Stopping as the brush of lips against his cock almost sent him crashing down but he locked his arms and bent his own head to capture the straining length of flesh in his mouth.

It was not a position Mac could hold for long when his lover's attentions threatened to rob his limbs of strength. Another move and they were on their sides, curled together, mouths taking infinite care to stimulate and soothe. The rake of Mac's teeth lightly against Methos' cock almost sent the older man into convulsions at the bright wash of pleasure sang through him. A single thrust against his palate warned him to ease his own attentions but it was too late as he felt the first swell and spatter of salty bitterness wash over his tongue. He pushed and Mac rolled to his back and once more the finger sought entry, MacLeod's hand milking his cock even as Methos continued to suckle, tongue encouraging the blood to rise, hands fondling the heavy sack and press against the sensitive spot below the root, to allow the powerful hips to thrust. Eyes closed he rocked into the penetrating fingers, hearing Mac moan and whisper encouragements beneath him

His fingers closed tightly around Mac's shaft and he waited as the fingers in his ass dug into the tender flesh until the impending orgasm was momentarily stilled. He pulled forward, his own breath coming in short pants of necessary breathing. His turn to crawl forward and he cast a look back at Duncan's glazed and hungry eyes. "Mine," he whispered and then went still as Mac gathered his strength and his will and rose, sliding out from between Methos legs to kneel behind his partner. Shaking hands guided the over-ready cock into the slick, tight heat of Methos' body and the match was over.

MacLeod settled back and down, pulling Methos back as well, wasting no concern on comfort or gentleness as he spread his lover's thighs across his own. Methos had one hand stroking his own cock as he rose and fell, the other stretched behind him to hold on to his lover's hair.

Mac held him and held on, encircling the muscled chest and the flat belly as they moved, rocked, slipped apart and together until he knew nothing but the need to fill and seal himself to Methos. He came suddenly, pushing forward as he drove himself forcibly into his lover's ass, chest to back and felt Methos buck against him both from his own orgasm and from the harsh thrust of MacLeod's body into his. Part of his mind aware that his lover was splayed and open beneath him, another part needing even more contact as he gripped the short hair and leaned in, forcing Methos to take all his weight, the other man's arms trapped beneath him. He groaned as the last of his seed spilled into the welcoming body, lips brushing lightly over the bowed shoulders.

A small shift in weight and Methos was able to free his hands, crossing them under his head and sighing softly as Mac's weight continued to warm his back, waiting for this lover's heart to slow.

"You are mine," Mac murmured tenderly in his ear.

"Always and forever, Mac."

"Is that a promise?"

Methos shook his head slightly. "Just the truth," he said softly. "For once."