Storm Front
by Maygra de Rhema

continued from Part Five...

Warning: Death Story this section!!


Joe arrived at dawn in a converted Buick with the back seat laden with groceries and breakfast.

"How is he?" he asked when he met MacLeod on the driveway finishing his morning run.

"Asleep when I left." Mac wiped his face with a towel, glancing at the bags in the back. "Siege fare?" he asked but he was grinning -- openly and honestly. Such a simple cure, Joe thought. Bring together and close all the things MacLeod cares about and the man is content. He returned the grin.

"Naw. Angela figured you two wouldn't surface for a couple of days."

"Sooner, perhaps. He wants to see Tray," Mac said in tone that indicated he wasn't sure how he felt about Methos' interest.

"I'll go on up, then. Is he likely to take my head off -- literally or figuratively?" Joe asked.

"Don't think so, but I make no promises. Go on. I'll be up a few minutes." MacLeod said and continued his run.

Joe found the door locked but he had a key, carrying the essentials of the groceries in with him -- primarily coffee and breakfast things. He checked the bedroom to find Methos still asleep -- which bothered him. He hadn't been that quiet coming in. A minute study showed his old friend looking, well, if not old, then worn. Lines he had never seen on the too-young face leapt out at him and made him feel even older.

Leaving the sleeping ancient, he wandered into the kitchen and made coffee, puttering about. MacLeod returned before the pot had finished brewing, raising an eyebrow at Joe.

"Not a murmur," Joe said. "He looks like hell."

"I noticed," Mac said easily. "Let me grab the rest of the groceries and a shower."

"And you'll tell me what you know?" Joe asked.

MacLeod nodded, "All of it that I know," he promised and headed outside.

Within fifteen minutes, Mac had the bags inside and left Joe to put their contents away while he grabbed the promised shower. When he returned he had a rumpled looking Methos in tow.

Without thinking about it Joe moved, enfolding the older Immortal in a bear hug. "Thought we'd lost you for good," he said roughly and pulled away just as fast. "Coffee?"

Methos looked a little stunned but nodded, sitting down at the table. "I'd apologize for the worry but since you already knew I was a fool, I guess it wouldn't carry much weight," Methos said softly. "Thank you -- for Tray," he added, meeting Joe's grin.

"Not a problem...nice to know not only the young guys can be heroes, " the Watcher said with a grin. "So, are we done?"

"For the time being," Methos said, wrapping his slender fingers around the hot mug Joe offered. "Next move belongs to Marcus."

"And will he?" Joe asked settling down across from him after laying down eggs and toast and bacon while Mac pulled plates from the cupboard.

"I don't know. Maybe not. Maybe it's been enough," Methos said and watched disinterestedly as his lover fixed a plate for him but he picked at the food.

"How many?" Joe asked, although he had a vague idea.

"Six...I think...plus one. I had some help before Mac arrived," he said and glanced at his mate.

"It was Amanda who called," Mac supplied sipping his coffee.

"Figures," Methos said sourly.

"But not who was with you when I got there," the Highlander pressed.

Methos suddenly became far more interested in his meal. After a few moments of silence , he put the fork down. "I'm not going to tell you -- they asked me not to." He hazarded a look at his lover. MacLeod met his gaze and then nodded reaching out to pull Methos' head toward him to kiss his temple.

"All right. I'd like to thank them though."

"You may get the chance someday," Methos murmured and glanced back into the living room. "I suppose we can make this place more habitable." He rose and slid his plate into the sink having eaten barely anything. Moving into the living area, he began pulling sheets off the furniture.

"Time," Mac said softly at Joe's puzzled gaze. "Just give him time."

It was reasonable, Joe rationalized, and did his part to help. By noon the place looked better and Methos had opted for a shower. When he came out, he lay back on the bed for a moment only. Mac checked on him thirty minutes later and he was sound asleep. Pulling the duvet over him, MacLeod closed the door partially and invited Joe outside.

"Were he anything but an Immortal, I'd swear this is battle fatigue," Joe said, leaning against the porch railing to sip at his beer.

"You may not be far off. That many Quickenings...he's not himself. Half the time I'm not even sure he's here. The last one he took...he was out for nearly six hours. I'm glad there was someone there," Mac said, his frustration and guilt as easily read from his tone as from his face.

"He went to a lot of trouble to keep you ignorant, Mac," Joe said soothingly.

"I know, but it bothers me that he would take help from someone other than me...not in addition to me -- but instead."

"He needed you to find Tray," Joe reasoned.

"No, he needed to keep me occupied," Mac spat out. "He was halfway to finding Tray himself. No. He wanted me out of this little feud with Marcus...even though according to him, I am the one who triggered it. Lord God, I could know him a hundred years and never know how his mind works."

"You might need more time than that." Joe glanced out at the mountains surrounding the house. "He's been alone for a long time ...worked his own deals, his own plans. He doesn't play well with others, Mac. You know this. Of all people, you have to know how hard it is for him to turn to anyone -- ask for anything. But he trusts you implicitly--"

"No. No, he doesn't. He wants to...he trusts me with things he can predict...knows how I will react to, but implicitly? Not any more. Cassandra, damn her, made absolutely sure of that. She wanted him alone and friendless. She found a way to nearly make it happen -- it didn't, but she damaged it -- us," MacLeod said softly, leaning on the rail. "And I let it happen. Walked into it. He loves me, but he doesn't trust me. He may never trust me again -- not completely. I am easily manipulated...by Cassandra, by him. You'd think I'd have learned by now. Christ, even Marcus manipulated me. If I had taken his head in London..." he kicked at the bottom rail. "But I didn't trust him -- didn't believe him entirely. Still don't know if I do."

"So you can be taught," Methos said and Mac's face flushed as he turned. Methos leaned against the door dressed only in jeans. He was smiling faintly with amusement. "You have no idea how glad I am to hear that." He moved forward to stand in front of MacLeod, catching his chin and kissing him lightly. "Not your fight, Duncan. Never was. Never wanted your agreement except to stay out of it. Which you did -- mostly."

MacLeod rolled his eyes. "You have to be the most contrary man on the planet! Christ, Methos! What do you want from me if not my trust and support?"

"What I've got. And you do trust me to a point. Support me unfailingly. I don't need you to agree with me as well or even believe in the things I do. We've always known that isn't true -- very likely not possible. It's not you, MacLeod. It's me. Maybe if I had less of a past it would be easier -- for both of us, for all of us." He looked at Joe with that same sweet smile that told Joe that Methos was far more surprised at what he had gained since meeting them, than disturbed by what was missing. "I am as much a product of my own past as you are, as Joe is. I can't get rid of it or deny it and five thousand years of living my life one way isn't going to be discarded in a few years -- maybe not even a few decades or centuries."

"Love conquers all? That's idealistic for you, my friend," Joe said and Methos laughed.

"Not conquers...makes most of the rest bearable. Why'd you think I got married so many times?"

"So, now what?" Mac asked, frustration apparent in his voice.

"Get back to our lives," Methos said with more hope than promise.

"Claire asked..." Joe shifted off the rail.

"Not yet," Methos said softly, not looking at Joe. "A couple of days. Saw myself in the mirror. I love Claire dearly but I am really not in the mood for mothering," he added a little flatly. Rubbing his eyes with one hand he shook his head and came up with another smile. "But I'll call her. What's he like?"

Joe chuckled. "He is fascinated by everything."

"That's good. Fascination makes for long lives," Methos said. "I'm going to get some lunch. Joe?"

"Naw. Go on. I'll get back. Don't forget to call," he warned. "Or she will be up here in a heart beat. If not sooner." He moved down the ramp toward his car waving over his shoulder.

"He has a lot of questions for you," Mac said as they watched Joe pull away.

"So do you. They can wait. Lunch can't."

It was on Mac's tongue to challenge his lover but fatigue still haunted the hazel eyes and the set of the mobile mouth indicated that Methos would not be badgered out of his silence nor coaxed from his thoughts.

Was this the price he had to pay to have this enigmatic man back in his life full-time? That he remain an enigma? Had it been put to him a week ago as part of the deal, he would have said yes immediately.

What if the offer had been for part time?

Yes.

As opportunity arose?

Yes.

Rarely?

"You are right," Mac said leaning forward to kiss his forehead. "Lunch can't wait. What do you want?"

Methos just grinned and caught Mac's mouth with his own. "Something Scottish."


It took nearly a week before Methos finally agreed to descend from the relative seclusion of the cabin to see the child that had cost him so much. If there was resentment in his lover for his son, MacLeod could not find it. Throughout his recovery, Methos would drop a question here and there in the middle of other conversations that gave Mac some hope that his lover might eventually see that adding this child to the short list of those he cared about might not be a bad thing.

"Do they play music for him?" he asked while he and Mac worked to clear some weeds from around the porch.

The question startled Mac, but he nodded. "Angela does -- while she works. Tray has a playpen there in the studio. She listens to a lot of things."

"Springsteen?"

Mac chuckled and nodded. "That too -- Rolling stones," he laughed louder at the shudder that ran through Methos' frame. "U2."

"Enya?"

"Not that I've heard."

"Thank God," Methos breathed and Mac watched the small smile hover over Methos' mouth for the rest of their time in the yard.


"Here," Mac said setting a cup of coffee down at his lover's elbow as Methos worked on updating his Journals -- deleting and rearranging, adding to them. MacLeod never watched nor read.

"Thanks." The fingers came up to wipe at the strained eyes as Methos put his pen down and picked up the cup, curled up in the big chair in his reconverted study.

"Welcome," Mac said and sat down at the desk trying to bring the myriad accounts into some kind of reckoning. Trusts and guardianships for Tray had been set up and most of the real accounting was done by the solicitors, but there were false trails and covers that Mac wanted to make sure could not be broken. Outside the open window a small set of chimes sang softly.

"Claire says he loves chimes."

MacLeod turned to see his lover watching the delicate dance of the small metal tubes.

"Movement and sound -- yeah. Angela calls it dancing -- what he does, a sort of sway like he has when he is mesmerized by something."

He waited but Methos said nothing more and when he glanced back the older Immortal had picked up his pen again.


They had showered after a workout. Morning spars resumed within two days of Methos' return despite his wait and see attitude about Marcus. Evenly matched, although Methos was a little edgier than usual and more prone to brutal attacks. Bruises were common. Major injuries were not. Methos was as honed and prepared as Mac had ever seen him. He had mixed feelings about it -- glad his lover was so capable of attacking and defending, bothered by the reminders of why and how Methos had once more become so lethal with his sword again and no tricks to pull out at the last minute.

The shower became as much about easing sore muscles as getting clean and once out, Methos stretched his long frame against the dresser, stretching out the last of the kinks in his back and legs, smiling appreciatively at the quick, hard kneading Mac gave his shoulders.

Mac pulled out clothes for both of them and found his lover staring in the mirror, a completely unguarded expression on his face. "You said he looks..."

"Like you. Hair's darker. Not quite so prominent a nose," Mac said running his finger along his lover's nose. "He may grow into it yet."

"Now that would be unfair, " Methos breathed and dropped his gaze, only to find Mac at his shoulder, arms around his waist.

"He has that same look you get when you are trying to think of something that isn't important, except that you want to remember it." Mac said. "Except he has it all the time."

"Looks right through you?"

"No," Mac said and stared at their reflected images in the mirror, heads close together, dark and fair, quiet and troubled. "Like he sees into you," he said and continued to look, wondering what his lover saw.


"No speech at all," Methos asked him shuffling through CD's to play during dinner.

"Nope...sounds...hums and starts of things but nothing coherent."

Rachmaninoff came up. "I never could sing very well either," Methos commented.

"Not true. You have a nice singing voice."

"You are tone deaf."

"I know good singing," Mac refused to back down.

"Mac, you like opera. German opera."

"Your point?"

"Exactly."


"Bright colors," Mac reminded him as they dressed for dinner. Methos had pulled out a black sweater, loose, very attractive, but black.

"Dressing for the whim of a child who won't even notice I'm there," Methos grumbled but exchanged the sweater for a blue shirt, loose silk with silvered buttons. Mac grinned at him and buttoned his own red shirt.

"I like it too," MacLeod told him, nipping at his ear as he picked up his coat.

"That makes it all better then, doesn't it?" Methos said and finished dressing.

The drive was quiet, Methos staring moodily out the window -- or not moody, Mac realized . Nervous and excited. And scared.

"Quite the enclave," Methos said softly as they pulled up into the drive. The gate opener took the signal off Mac's remote and they pulled in. Lights were on, the glass front of the home reflecting the headlights back at them briefly even though it was only just dusk. A grin split Methos' face as he saw Claire move toward the door. He had barely gotten out of the car before she was down the steps, moving swiftly but with dignity. A dignity she lost upon reaching him and grabbed the sides of his face to kiss him soundly.

"I thought about meeting you with a baseball bat -- or a water hose. But I have a paper due in two months that you are going to be blackmailed into helping me with. And a longer project guaranteed to keep you on your toes for awhile."

"Blackmail me how?" he laughed at her.

"Real papyrus fragments...not copies."

He made a face at her. "You are evil," he said and the rubbed the back of his knuckles across the lined cheek. "I'll even wear gloves."

His attention was caught by movement in the window: Angela coming forward with a small figure in her arms. The reflection from the headlights made it nearly impossible for her to see them but Methos could see and his hand tightened around Claire's even as Duncan moved up behind him.

He had raised children, he reminded himself. Other men's children. Loved them and guided them -- sometimes buried them. Tray was not looking at them, his hands were busy tracing the circles of light on the window.

"Come on," Claire said with a smile.

"Wait. Just ...wait," Methos murmured and was very grateful when Mac's hands came to rest on his shoulders.

"'Childhood shows the man, as morning shows the day'," Mac said softly.

"Milton," Methos responded, almost automatically. "I was never that..." he took a deep breath and released Claire's hand. "He...Tradere always will be."

"Go on, Claire," Mac said. "We'll be in in a minute."

She nodded and kissed Methos' cheek again before entering the house.

"We could call this a practice run," Mac said softly, letting his arms slip around Methos' shoulders and holding him close against his chest.

"Or we could just run," Methos said but shook his head. "I can face Immortals. I can face a four year old."

He rested against Mac for a moment longer and then moved, Mac remaining close behind as they entered. In the foyer, Mac took the lead a bit and led him to the door into the living area.

Joe was seated on the arm of the sofa, Claire crouching in front of Tray initially, but she rose and took the small hand in hers opposite of Angela, who smiled at Methos like the proud parent she was.

Mac stayed behind his lover as Claire and Angela led the child forward. Tray paid no mind, all his concentration on the floor below him and how his shadow moved ahead of him from the lighting. He remained looking down even when they stopped and after a moment, Methos crouched to see if he could distract the child, a faint smile on his face. Light caught the silver buttons and Tray's attention shifted, moving up each one until he looked into Methos' face, more or less.

And then looked into his father's face.

The large hazel eyes widened, the small mouth opened and then he screamed.

His slight weight pulled against the hands on his and the screaming continued as he tried to pull away from his keepers, terror in the childish voice, high pitched panic. Methos stumbled backward, hearing those screams as if they were issued from his own personal bane-sidhe. He turned, face stricken and despairing as he pushed past Mac and out the door. Mac gave one glance at the terrified child and then followed him, leaving Angela and Claire to comfort him the boy.

Methos stopped at the car, hand on the door but didn't open it. He stared blindly at the glass, a the reflection of his own face but made no move until Mac came up behind him and touched his shoulder. He went down so swiftly, MacLeod was barely able to catch him, both of them hitting the driveway on their knees, jarring them. Mac's arms folded around the thin frame as his lover's body spasmed under sobs so harsh they allowed him to make no sound.

Mac could only hold him as he pressed his lips to the dark hair.

Tray's screams had followed them all the way outside, but they finally faded to a few muffled cries and then sobs that faded as the object of his terror was proven to no longer be close by.

"She said..." Methos managed to gasp. "She swore he would hate me. But he is so young, I thought..."

"He doesnae' hate you, Methos. A child his age canno' hate. He is afraid but it's not hate."

"It will be, Duncan. Cassandra was very, very talented. She made you believe you were a killer." Slowly Methos pulled himself upright.

"For a time...and Tray may be afraid for a time."

"Try terror...try traumatizing him if I get close again. Gods below know what she used to make him so terrified of me."

"Then we will hire a counselor...someone to work with him so he won't be terrified," Mac soothed.

"No! I won't have him...I need to leave," he murmured as blind in his grief as he had been in his hope.

Mac could only hold on, only barely aware that Claire had followed them. "It's stopped," she said hollowly. "Completely -- like nothing happened. No residual agitation, no acknowledgment or fear. It just...stopped. "

"So it should," Methos dragged out raggedly and shifted, pushing Mac away and getting to his feet.

"Adam...." Claire began impotently but he shook his head.

"I've seen him. He's well loved. It's enough," he said quietly. "I'll call you in a day or so about the paper," he kissed her cheek and climbed into the car, leaving Mac and Claire to stare at him helplessly.

The storm had broken, now there was only the clean up, Claire thought as the car pulled away. Prompted by MacLeod's quotation, she sought one of her own and it made her weep far into the night when she thought of it and Angela held her close and tried to ask why.

A child's heart curseth deeper in the silence than the strong man in his wrath." E. B. Browning.


It was not discussed. Methos would say nothing and his stubborn refusal to speak of the incident was far stronger than Mac's will to pursue it. Not that he was forbidden to speak of Tray at all but other than polite and distance inquiries about his son's well-being or listening to comments about the time Mac spent with the young family, he showed no more interest in pursuing the thought of raising or even having contact with the child that had cost him so much.

Within a month it was as if it had never happened.

That was as unnerving to Mac as Tray's reaction. Methos, for all intents and purposes, had shut the incident away, filed it along other disappointing memories and events and got on with his life. He contacted Claire two days later and they began earnest work on her paper and translations, meeting either at the cabin or Claire's office or some other neutral place, including the bar where Joe sang. People who recognized him he met with some affection and disavowed any plans to return to academia saying only that pressing family business would require his attention for a year or so. He was here only to settle some business.

Which is how MacLeod discovered that Methos had no intention of remaining in Blacksburg for the long term. It was not a matter his lover discussed with him and Mac wondered if he would.

MacLeod's renovation of the old church and vicarage had roused some inquiries and he found himself suddenly at a drafting board out of a need for diversion. He had been asked to design a renovation for an older structure. The construction foreman on his own project, Howard Kasko, had recommended him to the owners -- impressed with MacLeod's easy style. It wasn't Mac's first choice of anything but it was better than waiting for his once more inscrutable lover to fall apart -- or disappear.

Of course, there is always the possibility that he is just as fine as he says he is, Mac thought, glancing up from the drafting table he'd purchased to glance at Methos. They had taken to working evenings in the newly reclaimed office; Mac at the drafting table, Methos at his computer or desk working on his journals or Claire's translations. Sometimes surfing the Internet. Naw. Mac decided in a moment of black Scot's humor. Methos' cynicism had returned but on a much less frequent level -- no less biting than the rare show of wit, but not as often.

"What do you think?" Mac asked, finishing the last of a revised plotting for the interior renovation of what had once been a small office building just off Blacksburg's main street. Methos glanced up at him, that easy smile appearing as he slipped out of his chair to lean across MacLeod's shoulder.

"I think it's going to be hell to wash those front windows," his lover replied with a smirk. He'd seen the building -- gone with Mac to do an inspection of the building and take some measurements. The front of the building was two-stories, tapering back to a one story section not unlike a huge uneven wedge of pink marble cheese. The front of the building was entirely glass. "Are you going to offer to find the perfect furnishings as well?" he asked totally innocently.

"I might. You want to go on a buying trip with me?" Mac asked, knowing Methos was aware that he had pursued that long-loved line of work as well.

Folding his arms across the back of MacLeod's shoulders, a softer smile eased the thin lines of Methos' face. "I might at that. A little tour of the back waters of the Appalachians...maybe take run east instead, back toward D.C."

"An extended vacation," Mac said archly but grinned at him. Might be what they needed to get back in synch. Some time alone. Tray was as safe as Mac could make him from the incursion of any other Immortals and Joe was remaining to keep an eye on the family. The Blues Man had found himself slipping quite readily into the role of Uncle. He liked Claire and Angela and they him and he liked Blacksburg's easy, laid-back pace. He had told Mac he could do worse than the Virginia college town as a place to retire. A couple of times a year to the clubs to make his appearances...it seemed barely possible after the turmoil of the last few months that they might all find some peace; haunted though it was. It happened. Had happened before to MacLeod. He had led a quiet life with Tessa for over a decade before finding himself thrust back into the maelstrom of Immortal life. The two years after Richie's death had also been quiet -- more or less.

Calm before the storm.

It came to him unbidden as Methos' mouth covered his to encourage their plans for a trip.

"How long before you can get away?" Methos asked him.

"A week?" Mac answered with a question. He'd drop it all now. "What about Claire's research?"

The throaty chuckle was reassuring. "We are looking at a project that will take a year at least -- probably two. She won't miss me for a couple of weeks. And she won't worry if you are with me."

One dark brow raised in amused speculation. "Your baby-sitter am I?"

"No, she just thinks you are a stabilizing influence on me. She's probably right," Methos mused and pushed upward, kneading Mac's shoulders for a moment, a thoughtful look on his face. "Do you think it...it's safe to leave them?" he asked quietly, hazel eyes not quite focused on Mac's face as if he had to separate himself from the thoughts to voice them.

MacLeod twisted in his chair and caught the graceful hands. "As safe as they can be unless one of us is there twenty-four hours a day," he said but did not press the issue.

"I suppose you are right," Methos answered all self-confidence and possession gone in those brief moments. The eyes focused again and he pulled away. "I'm going to start some dinner."

Wounded but healing.


MacLeod turned the final drawing over to Howard Kasko three days later, walking through the site to go over the plans with the contractor and the owners. They were nearing the end of the tour when his cell phone beeped. MacLeod excused himself and stepped outside.

"Mac..." Joe's voice rough and tense. "Angela and Tray didn't return from the store."

It took Mac a moment to process that. No minor transgression to be late from an excursion. The doctors had recommended that Tray be kept to as rigid a routine as possible in his encounters with the outside world. Thursdays were grocery days. Angela never took more than an hour and one outing a day was all that was suggested. She had adhered to those recommendations as if they were gospel.

"Where does she go?"

"Food Lion on Broad Street. Meet you there?"

"No. Stay in case it was something she couldn't avoid. An accident. You called Claire?"

"Yep, she hasn't heard anything but she's canceling a class and on her way."

"Adam?"

The brief silence told him Joe had not called. "I will," Mac said. "Keep in touch." Joe assented and Mac hurried to make his excuses, dialing the cabin as soon as he was out of the house and heading toward his car.

He was not mistaken. No matter Methos' feelings or lack of them for his son, he was not so divorced from the situation as he seemed.

Claire was there first, distressed and angry and keeping it together remarkably well. Angela's battered but well tuned Capris was still in the parking lot with Tray's car seat.

"The diaper bag is gone," she said to MacLeod as they headed into the store and Mac suddenly turned in time to recognize the Immortal signature as well as the dark green SUV.

Methos prowled along the other stores in the strip mall while Mac and Claire spoke to the grocery store personnel. Angela's shopping basket was near the check out and the last they had seen her she was heading into the bathroom with her small son.

Claire checked the restroom but MacLeod pushed through the side exit. The door said it was alarmed but nothing sounded -- unwired to allow easy and silent egress for employees looking to take a quick break.

It opened into the back of the shopping center revealing overflowing dumpsters and delivery trucks and little else. A low wooded bank stretched behind the lot leading down a slight slope to a residential neighborhood. There was a large semi parked near the grocery store's loading dock, doors open but near empty. He glanced inside but saw nothing and moved away, toward the back of the lot. He prowled the curb, looking for any recent sign of passage, bringing tracking skills long unused but not forgotten to bear but saw nothing other than what looked like a series of bicycle tracks cutting through the grass -- children from the neighborhood below, no doubt.

A tingle of awareness and Mac whirled only to see Methos working his way along the wooded back lot from the other end. Meeting his lover's eyes, Mac shook his head and scanned the area around them then up, glancing quickly over the rooftop of the shopping center. Then again as the large truck started up and began pulling away. Mac started to run forward, wanting to speak to the driver when his eyes caught a narrow ladder -- used for outside roof access and almost completely obscured in detection by the truck and the shadows cast by the building and the carrier.

Closing the distance quickly, aware that Methos was moving toward him, MacLeod was halfway up the ladder before Methos reached the bottom. The roof was flat, layered all over with black lava chips and asphalt, ventilation towers and vents and air-conditioning units rising up like some alien civilization on a barren landscape.

"Angela!" MacLeod's voice rang out strongly with nothing to impede it as he moved forward, trying to see where, if anywhere, she might have hidden herself. She was not a big woman and Tray was tiny.

He heard Methos behind him, grim faced and pale, both of them wondering if she would have done something so risky and so absolute as to carry a child upward...but Mac's instinct was good as he heard a sound, the grating of metal and moved toward the sound.

The next building over he saw the panel shift on one of the air conditioning housings. The panel jammed then gave way under Mac's coaxing and Angela's pale face peered up at him anxiously. She was bruised and covered in dirt and oil, scrapes along her hands and her jeans torn from trying to fit herself into the tiny space without touching the motor or crushing the child cradled against her breast.

Tray was asleep, deeply, and without thinking Mac handed the small form to Methos who took the boy in reflex as his partner helped Angela up and out. She staggered and let loose a little whimper of pain and fear, Tray's bag still over her shoulder and all that had protected her back from the gratings within the housing. MacLeod did not wait as he scooped her up and carried her to the side of the building while she clung to his neck. She wasn't crying but she looked and acted shocky.

Following more carefully so as not to wake his sleeping charge, Methos held Tray easily, cradled against his chest the boy's head on his shoulder and looked over the edge to see Claire looking up.

"Let me get him to Claire, then I'll help you with Angela," Methos offered and Mac agreed, holding his lover steady as he made the climb onto the ladder and watching anxiously. It was no easy climb with one hand but Methos went slowly, smoothly, until he was on the ground and then spoke quietly to Claire for a moment as she held Tray and kissed his sleeping face.

He came back up much quicker but Angela had rallied.

"I can climb," she said with more spunk than certainty but she managed it with Methos behind her and Mac following. Once on the ground, her legs gave way and she sat, Claire going down with her to hug and hold her, Tray still in one arm but stirring.

"I'll get the car," Methos said, backing away before the boy could waken. It was a confusing few minutes, Angela forestalling any conversation until she was certain Tray was fine.

"Two of them," she finally managed before Methos returned. "I was just coming out and I saw them at the car -- I thought maybe someone -- one of them had backed into me...an accident. I went over to get the car to pull around to get the groceries. They seemed very friendly, very nice. Asked me if Tray was my son -- one of them saying "He's a special one, isn't he?" which was such an odd thing to say," her voice trembled.

"I asked them if I could help them and realized one of them was blocking my way to the car. So I backed up...looked for someone and told them if they didn't go away I would scream. And one of them pulled a gun and said that Tray wouldn't get any older then would he? I don't think...I didn't think he really meant to shoot me...or Tray. I mean there were people all around. I think he just wanted me to stop. But I didn't. I went back and they didn't follow -- I told the manager to call the police that there were two men but when we looked they were gone. He said he would call the police and I waited until they came but they were....I saw them. The policemen that arrived were the same two men..."

"So you went out back," Mac coaxed, reaching out to rub her shoulders.

Angela nodded. "There wasn't anyplace to hide...so I went up -- thinking I could find another ladder down or a roof trap but I heard something and couldn't find a way down...so I hid." She looked up at Duncan. "They were Immortals, weren't they?"

"I don't know, Angela. We didn't sense anyone...but we'll check with Joe and see if he knows anything. C'mon," he said pulling her to her feet as Adam brought Mac's truck around. The older Immortal got out but didn't move any closer, watching as Tray started to stir in Claire's arms. As she approached, Methos turned away, his back toward them so Tray would not see him.

"You get them home. And stay. I'll make arrangements to get the other cars back," he said over his shoulder to MacLeod.

Seeing Angela and Claire into the back seat, Mac came up behind Methos, resting his hands on his shoulders. "Come to the house," he said firmly. "We can put Tray in his room but we need to talk to talk about this -- all of us."

It took a moment but Methos nodded. "You're right," he said wearily. "Give me an hour...see what you can find out or what Joe can."

Mac nodded and kissed his temple before letting go and climbing into the driver's side. Pulling away he glanced at his lover in the rear view mirror unreasonably relieved to see Methos watch them pull away, one hand raised briefly before he want back into the store


It was less than an hour when Methos arrived -- with the abandoned groceries. Tray was safely ensconced in his nursery with the baby monitor on. Claire still angry but calm and Angela much calmer after two glasses of wine. She had showered and changed and actually got up to put the perishables away, preferring something to do rather than just sitting.

Joe's check had turned up nothing. No Watchers had reported in with Blacksburg as destination which meant the men who accosted Angela either weren't Immortals or weren't Immortals the Watchers were keeping track of.

"Which is possible," Methos pointed out, opening up several beers and distributing them. There were no emotional overtones to his words -- the tactician and strategist was firmly in place. "Most of Marcus' pet Immortals would be young...maybe without many, if any heads, between them or brains, apparently. Sloppy planning for Marcus. He's smarter than that. If they've been watching, Angela's schedule wouldn't take too long to establish."

"You are assuming it is Marcus," Joe said.

"No, I'm not, although I think it the most likely explanation. No, it could have been random or even planned -- a kidnapping. There's been a lot of money tossed this way recently," Methos said glancing at MacLeod without accusation. "And it was amateurish -- or desperate. Stupid. If they really meant to take Tray."

MacLeod picked up on the last bit first. "You think they did it to scare Angela."

"Or us," Methos said with a faint smile. "Into moving him, into making a move without thinking it through."

"But why do they want Tray? He's a child!" Claire said. "If they know anything about him they have to know he's no threat and never will be."

"They don't -- or Marcus doesn't. He wants me. He's just too much of an asshole to come out and challenge me directly."

"And you plan on challenging him?" Joe asked.

"Maybe," Methos said and really did sound uncertain as he rubbed his hand over his eyes.

"No," Mac said decisively. "I plan on challenging the son of a bitch."

"He was a friend once, Mac," Methos said softly but made no other protest.

"So was Cassandra -- once," MacLeod snapped back.

"You know -- I used to be a fair hand with a pistol," Claire mused aloud and ignored the look on her lover's face, not to mention the disapproval on Joe's. "Oh, don't give me those looks. And don't act as if this is not my fight," she snapped. "I will not live in terror in my own house. Or be worried every time we take Tray out for a stroll that someone is going to pull up and snatch him out of our hands. Since we can't go to the police --" She glared at all three men. "I'll be damned if I am going to sit back and wait."

"You won't have to," Mac said resolutely, but he glanced at his lover. Methos had said nothing more, staring down at the spread of his fingers on the countertop. Whatever was going on the ancient mind was closed to him but as if realizing they were waiting for his input, Methos looked up suddenly -- At Mac.

"Stay here with them tonight. I will make the reservations to London." Nothing was betrayed in his eyes, the gold-green meeting MacLeod's unflinchingly. "I'll call you when I have them and pick you up tomorrow."

"Together." Mac was not asking a question.

"Always and forever," Methos responded with smile that was both heated and fond and Mac felt certain that Methos meant it. There would be no sudden disappearances. He nodded and Methos gave Claire a kiss on the cheek. "We'll settle it," he promised and then left them.

"I feel so much better, now," Claire said sourly. 


Sleep refused MacLeod access to her realm and after tossing and turning for a couple of hours, long after the rest of the household had gone to sleep and Joe back to the vicarage, he finally gave in and got up. The bed in Claire and Angela's guest room was perfectly comfortable, the temperature perfect and the lack of a bed-partner obvious. Putting his jeans back on just in case he disturbed his hostesses, he went into the kitchen making the automatic perusal of the refrigerator and actually finding interest in the plate of cold cuts. Nibbling on a sandwich he spent long minutes trying to think what Methos' acquiescence, so easily won earlier in the evening, might mean.

Nothing like going to the source, he decided glancing at the clock over the stove. Three a.m. Tough.

Retrieving his cell from his coat he dialed home and was not even slightly surprised when Methos picked up on the first ring.

"Can't sleep?" he asked after the first husky hello.

"Was. Earlier," Methos said. "Reading a bit. Lumpy mattress?"

"Empty bed," Mac informed him but a smile accompanied the complaint.

"Know the feeling," Methos chuckled. "How's Angela?"

"Two more glasses of wine after you left and she was a puddle. I got to tuck her in."

Another laugh. "Enjoyed that, did you?"

"Practicing for you," Mac teased back then turned his thoughts off the pleasant diversion with reluctance. "What do you think?"

The soft sigh and the sound of movement. "I think we have reservations for the day after tomorrow and that we won't need to use them. I think Marcus is on his way here."

"Does he want you or does he want you dead?" Mac asked finally.

The silence stretched for a bit. "I honestly don't know, Mac. By my guess, the parenting pool is down a bit if not reduced entirely to mothers with no viable mates save Marcus... but he may think dynastic attributes are the way to go. You know it's unlikely he will meet your challenge directly. You are better than him, Mac,  and he knows it. So am I for that matter. He's not likely to let a little thing like the rules to the game get in his way."

"Bora Bora is sounding better," MacLeod said softly.

"It always has...never been," Methos admitted with a soft caress and invitation in his voice.

"You are kidding me."

"Nope." Another laugh and Mac found himself grinning into the phone.

"I'll have to remedy that, then," he promised.

"Keep it in mind and I'll call it a date. Duncan--"

Mac waited but there were no other words forthcoming. "I know," he said at last. "Me too. What are you wearing?" he asked suddenly.

"Sweats," Methos murmured back. "Want me to take them off?"

"Are we about to have phone sex?"

"Miracles of modern technology, MacLeod," Methos teased and there was a rustling and slide of fabric. "They are off. What are you wearing.?"

"Jeans. And I am in the kitchen. I can fix that though," he said with a laugh, and moved his dishes into the sink carrying the phone into his bedroom and closing the door.

It was mildly difficult to get his pants off with one hand but he managed it while Methos described their bedroom, the single lamp on and the pattern of leaves from the window as they fell across the bedspread.

"Did you take a shower?" Mac asked him, stretching out on the bed. His voice had gotten softer.

"Mmmm. Not too long ago. My hair is still damp."

MacLeod could smell it and almost feel it under his fingertips as he let his free hand rest on his chest. "I can't believe we're doing this," he chuckled softly.

"True. You'd think we could manage a night apart, now and then."

"Making up for lost time," Mac assured him and closed his eyes. "How are you laying?"

More muffled laughter and Mac grinned. "On my back...you like me like this don't you?" Methos teased in a voice husky with seduction and something far more inviting.

"Very much so. I like to look at you...see your face when I make love to you..."

"How about when you are just fucking me?" Methos purred.

"I never just fuck you," Mac scolded but he was laughing again. "I don't think it's possible for me to do that ...there's so much more when it's...when I take my time.."

"You make me crazy when you go slow."

"That's the point. You get a little crazy and you don't hold anything back...all I have to do is touch you and you are ready."

"I'm ready now," a whisper of sound, a caress MacLeod felt all the way to his groin. "I'm already hard...just thinking about your hands on me...your mouth. I love your mouth."

"Where do you love my mouth?"

"Fishing for compliments?" A sigh that brushed across Mac's own lips. "On mine, your mouth on mine...on my skin. You've got a mouth like a well-trained courtesan, MacLeod. You could make a living with that alone...but you know where I like it almost most of all."

Mac swallowed. "You know what I love most about you?" he murmured.

"My active imagination?"

MacLeod snorted with laughter again and heard his lover laugh in return. "I love your hands," he said finally. "Those beautiful, graceful strong hands. Whatever they do...wherever they touch. Me, a book...your hair. I think they hypnotise me -- and they are very talented hands," he added huskily.

"Where would you like them?" Methos' voice was a low thrum, echoing along the phone line.

"On my face, the way you trace my lips just before you kiss me."

"Targeting...don't want to miss that mouth," Methos said softly and slowly, almost as if he were kissing Mac between each word. "Or your throat. When you laugh I can feel it there...or those little moany sounds you make...especially when you first push your cock inside me and then pull back."

"Shit," Mac hissed as his body reacted rather noticeably to the slowly spoken description. His hand dropped to his groin, stroking the sudden need. "You have to be illegal in half the world. Are you touching yourself?"

"I have my hand wrapped around my cock -- I'm pretending it's your mouth. Hot and wet, sliding over me, swallowing me." There was a small catch at the end of the words. "You're watching me."

"I always watch you," Mac confirmed and brought up some vivid visualizations of his own. Hot and moist -- there were other places like that -- tight and deep and strong. He could almost see it, the way Methos' spine would arch every time he would thrust deep, the stretch of his throat, the paleness like an ivory column with the pulse jumping wildly at the base. How the taste of Methos' mouth changed, became sharper if Mac was kissing him when his lover exploded into an orgasm. Blood rushed to his groin, to his brain and he had to take a deep breath before he could speak. "I want to be two places at once when I fuck you," he whispered and thought he heard a groan in response. "I want to be buried so deep inside you I'll never find my way out, and tasting you, your cock in my mouth at the same time."

"It's possible...how limber are you feeling, Duncan? I swear I can be there in ten minutes." Methos' voice was husky with need and desire. "Five if you meet me half-way."

Oh, this was getting out of hand -- so to speak -- Mac thought, tightening his grip on his cock. He was actually contemplating doing it. "That would put us, oh, right about the center of town," he warned.

"Mmm. Right at the E-Z Mart," Methos said with a long release of held breath. "Think they'd mind?"

"I don't really care," Mac growled, twisting on the bed and almost shutting the phone off.

"We'll never make to the back of the truck," Methos said. "Not that I care...you can have me on the front seat, on the hood, the ground. We'll probably get arrested."

"As long as they put us in the same cell." He pushed against his hands and the linens. "Should I find my keys?"

"Tell me where your mouth is."

"Glued to this phone but I would rather have it attached to your mouth, with my fingers in your ass watching you buck against me," Mac said almost harshly. "Holding your wrists so you can't touch yourself," he said more softly.

"Bastard," Methos groaned.

Mac smiled and stroked harder at the moan from the other end. "You are such a tease," Methos snarled softly. "You have to buy more sheets. I'm not doing the laundry again." His breath was coming in small pants and Mac could see him, flushed, the muscular chest heaving, skin slicked with sweat, those long, graceful fingers stroking his cock, fingering it. Knees up and thighs parted, waiting for him.

"I'm pushing inside you now, filling you," he murmured. "And you are taking me, all of me, closing around me, holding me. I can smell you," he breathed and squeezed his eyes shut as his cock jerked, the burn and pleasure swelling as he stroked himself harder and faster. "I start slow, in and out, then faster....and you are pushing to meet me, until all I feel is you...want is you. I'm moving faster, harder, deeper," he murmured, Methos echoing his words with a softly voiced 'yes' at each description. "You can't even catch your breath I am pumping into you so fast." He groaned and shifted, swearing softly.

Methos didn't answer, not in words, just a broken moan sounded, then three quick breaths and a hiss of pleasure. Mac knew that sound, precursor to a scream of release. He would like to let go with one of his own but he was not so far gone as to forget there were other people in the house. "I am coming inside you, filling you up," he murmured. "Let go, lover. Just a touch, my mouth on your cock -- sucking hard..."

It started and Mac was almost afraid it would be loud enough to be heard. That cry enough to trigger the first wave of his own release as the cry dwindled to a few harsh moans. He bit his lips as semen spilled over his hand. Release but not full relief. Still, it was worth it to be able to talk Methos through an orgasm. He would never let his lover live this down.

"You son of a bitch," Methos gasped, caught between embarrassment and laughter. "I never used to be so easy. Your turn."

"Too late," Mac chuckled using a pillowcase to wipe himself off. "Your scream did it...are you a mess?"

"I had just taken a shower," Methos grumbled.

"Well wipe off the worst and I promise to give you a proper bath in the morning."

"Right...I'm going to show up on Claire's doorstep smelling like a bordello. Tough luck, Duncan-san," he teased. "You are dangerous."

"You are too sexy to be real," Mac returned with affection. "Be interesting if we could talk each other through this face to face."

"Never happen...if I can see you, I want to touch you," Methos said silkily. "So be prepared when I come by in the morning."

"I'm the Boy Scout, remember. I'm always prepared," Mac chuckled and stretched. "But I'm likely to be a grouch. I doubt I'll get any sleep."

There was a pause. "Me either...miss you."

After a few hours? Odd. "What are you thinking?" he inquired softly, pulling a blanket up and over himself. After the flush of their little seduction his skin felt overly cool.

There was a long moment of silence. "That I could wipe out the past -- that we could start fresh..."

"I wouldn't give up any of the time we've had together. You have to know that."

"I do." Methos sighed. "Just....we are apart now because of the past. Ignore me, Duncan. Just a little post-coital depression," he joked.

"I can be there in ten minutes," Duncan said earnestly and softly.

More silence. "No. It's okay. I'm okay...just more tired than I thought." Mac could hear him moving. "I am going to get cleaned up...take a bath."

"Methos," Mac asked without saying it.

"I'm fine," his lover assured him firmly. Mac could hear the smile in his voice. "I'll see you -- all of you -- in the morning," he said and Mac laughed at the double entendre.

"It's a date. Can I take you to breakfast?"

"If you like. I was planning on having you for breakfast."

"I'm a growing boy..." Mac warned, reassured that Methos' momentary fit of sadness had passed.

"You have to be an adult for what I have planned," Methos teased. "Goodnight, Mac."

The phone clicked off before Mac could say "I love you." He set it on the bedside table, contemplating it for a long moment. He should do the same -- bathe, clean up a bit. The should have's faltered as he closed his eyes for a moment.

Sleep came to him as gently as a caress from his lover.


Methos managed enough control to greet his lover on the doorstep with a grin, fully clothed and with his hands securely tucked in the pockets of his light duster.

His grin widened as Mac got a silly look on his face but the kiss they exchanged was quite chaste -- for them -- or so Claire claimed when she came out to see why the door indicator on the alarm panel remained blinking for so long.

"How's Angela?" Methos asked as soon as Mac stepped back to let him in.

"Fine. Angry now more than anything," Claire said holding up the coffee pot and pouring a fresh cup at Methos' nod. "And Tray is fine as well," she added even though Methos didn't ask.

"That's good," he said softly, almost to himself. He had left his coat on and Claire looked at it pointedly.

"You can stay, you know," she said. "He's in his room. He's been fed -- it's story and dressing time and then Angela will leave him for a bit..." she indicated the child monitor on the kitchen counter. "Awkward as it is, we were friends first," she said, laying her hand on top of Methos'. He stared down at it with a smile and covered it briefly before pulling away and shedding his coat.

"I got invited to breakfast," he commented sipping at his coffee and glancing at his lover.

"We'll be fine," Claire said. "You can't dance attendance on us 24 hours a day...not if we want to have any kind of a normal life."

"And we do," Angela said firmly, emerging with a load of clean clothes. "Hi, you," she said kissing Methos on the cheek. "Thanks for showing up so quickly yesterday. Both of you."

"I'll see what--" Methos began and saw the look MacLeod gave him. "We'll see what we can do to make sure it doesn't happen again. If it makes you feel any better, I don't think they want either you or Tray dead," Methos added.

"Figured that one out myself," Angela said flipping the fair hair off her shoulders. "But given that they killed Lisa and nearly Joe to get to him...you used to teach martial arts, right, Duncan?"

MacLeod nodded but raised an eyebrow. "Never taught anyone to defend herself with a child on her hip though."

"There is that," she agreed and slid onto a stool, upending the laundry onto the counter. Methos grinned again at the look Claire shot her.

"We are going to breakfast," he said. "But not---"

"Normal," Angela said, pulling Tray's clothes from the pile and folding them neatly. "Claire has a class at ten and Tray and I are due at the hospital at ten-thirty for his therapy. We'll be fine." She meant it and Methos nodded, oddly reassured as he reached out to pick up a small red shirt and folded it, then another. Claire asked him a question about the manuscripts and Mac and Angela talked about self-defense until thirty minutes later the clothes were folded, the coffee was gone and they all looked up and realized it had all been very, very...normal.

"It didn't bother you to fold his clothes?" Mac asked as they got into the truck. They would pick up Mac's later.

"No," Methos smiled faintly as he started the engine. "The first was just...a shock, Mac. He is still just theory to me. I'm okay and I couldn't have found him a better home than you did."

"We did," Mac said and glanced at his lover out of the corner of his eyes. "Are you really hungry?"

"Yes," Methos said, straight faced but he wasn't heading toward town. "I think I said something about having you for breakfast."

"Good," Mac said smugly. "I was feeling neglected. Did you change the sheets yet?"

"Didn't need to," Methos said with a wide grin, eyes dancing. "You didn't really think having you talk dirty to me over the phone was going to do it, did you?"

He let the Scot stare at him in open-mouthed astonishment for a good ten seconds. "Yes. I changed the sheets," he said finally and softly, hazarding a glance from the road to MacLeod's face. "I still prefer the real thing."

MacLeod shut his mouth and glared at him but it was less than effective with the corner of his mouth twitching in suppressed laughter. He resolved right then and there that Methos was not going to be able to talk for hours by the time Mac was done with him.


Well, he could talk but his voice was hoarse, Mac thought wearily as he shifted on the bed, feeling Methos' softened cock slide against his hip. He was tired but it felt great. His lips found the lobe of an ear and he sucked happily.

"What kind of vitamins are you taking?" Methos asked.

Definitely hoarse.

"The right kind apparently," Mac returned and nuzzled the soft moist skin behind the ear.

Methos snickered and rolled over onto his back. Propping his head up on one elbow Duncan just looked at him, sated smile on his face.

"You are besotted," Methos accused seeing the dark eyes traveling from his throat to his groin and back again.

"Bewitched," Mac agreed with a grin then dropped his gaze as he caught Methos looking at him. Methos' hand came out, fingers spread to stroke through the dark hair on Mac's chest. Neither of them found it the least bit odd that they should be naked in the middle of the day, the bed linens a testament to the activities of the last ...Mac glanced at the clock to avoid blushing at the intensity of the gaze his lover was giving him...the last six hours.

He caught Methos' hand and held it up, kissing each finger before he moistened the palm. They had certainly tried to make up for lost time...the first time had been fierce and fast...the second languid and slow....then they took not quite a nap but they rested, made lunch and brought it back to bed. Then intense....

Mac leaned over to cover his lover's mouth tenderly. "You make me very happy," he said and had the pleasure of seeing the shy look return to the young/old face.

"Same here," Methos said on a whisper. "You also make me tired," he rallied and kissed MacLeod back harder before rolling away completely. The signs of Mac's most recent release were still on his thighs. "Save water?"

"Yeah. You get the shower started, I'm going to check in with Joe."

Methos nodded and left him, Mac searching through the jumbled clothes at the foot of the bed to find the phone. No messages. He thought they would have noticed the phone chirping but he was oddly reassured that there was no indicator.

Joe Dawson had the audacity to laugh at him. "Come up for air finally?" he asked, unrepentantly. "Angela says she dumped laundry on the counter this morning to keep Methos from devouring you right there."

"I am so glad you find this amusing," Mac said sourly but he was amused. Had he missed that look this morning? He didn't think so. Angela was no doubt having a grand time keeping Joe entertained and informed. "Just checking in."

"Quiet on this front and nothing across the wire," Joe reassured him. "Tray and Angela are out in the yard right now...pinwheels. She must have picked up a half dozen and put them in the ground. He's sitting in the middle of them and I swear he's going to break his neck trying to watch them all at once."

"You sound like an indulgent uncle, Joe," Mac said with a laugh.

"Feel like one..." The warmth in Joe's voice was comforting and real. "He's a beautiful child, Mac. Time for his music lesson," Joe laughed at his own betwitchment and they rang off.

Contemplating the day outside, Mac suddenly had a longing for his cabin. These days...beautiful and warm...he would like a lake to swim in. He could settle for a shower though, he decided after a moment. He glanced down at the bed and shook his head. With another silly smile on his face he stripped the sheets down and pulled out fresh ones, wondering how long it would take before Methos had his voice back.


The phone buzz was muffled but it was enough to bring Methos from a sound sleep to a barely conscious state. Blindly, he reached over MacLeod's chest for the table and, not finding the phone there, almost fell out of bed trying to snag it from the floor where it had fallen. His movements woke MacLeod , who reached with him and managed to keep Methos from landing on his head.

"'lo, Pierson," Methos mumbled and then sighed as his lover got him better situated across him, supporting his head in the awkward position. He only needed the support for a few seconds. His body went suddenly tense and MacLeod tensed with him as Methos pushed himself up to a sitting position.

"When is the flight due to arrive?" he asked and Mac leaned in, recognizing Joe's voice.

"You have someone ...non-interference, Joe," he cautioned.

"I know that," Methos murmured and Mac missed the other side of the conversation. "No. We won't be rushing anywhere. Challenging Marcus in the middle of the airport would be a little obvious. Just...just give us what you can when you can. Thanks, Joe." He turned the phone off.

"Marcus left London." It was not a question and Mac ran both hand through his tangled hair.

"Mmm. Should be in New York by daybreak," Methos said and flopped back on the bed, arms outstretched.

"We wait for him." Mac said, turning the light on.

"For lack of a plan, yes," Methos said, and reached up to touch Mac's face when the younger man turned to lean over him. His fingers trailed down to trace MacLeod's lips.

"Targeting?" Mac asked, kissing his fingers.

"Memorizing. I don't want you in this but that doesn't matter does it?" He asked seriously, hazel eyes fixed on Mac's face.

"Not this time. Sword and Shield, brother," Mac murmured. "Back to back. Maybe he wants to talk."

"Maybe."

"Should we move Tray?" Mac asked knowing Claire and Angela would hate it. But they would do it.

"Maybe for a few days...for awhile, until we settle this."

"Angela's parents live in Roanoke. That's the plan." Methos closed his eyes and nodded, swallowing and Duncan moved closer, sliding his arms under the other man's back and shoulders. "We could go with them..."

Gold-green flashed at him and Methos' hands gripped his upper arms. "Did you just say 'run'?"

MacLeod's jaws tightened but he nodded. "Fast and far if that's what it takes. Some obscure archeological dig that would make you and Claire happy, native crafts to keep Angela occupied and a place for Joe to play guitar."

"The Clan MacLeod on the run. What's wrong with this picture?" Methos studied the dark face, seeing barely muted fear in the dark eyes. Not of the fight...of the potential for loss.

"You've spent five thousand years surviving. After four hundred, I know why. For this," MacLeod said quietly.

"Not for the Prize?" Methos asked and smiled faintly at Mac's emphatic shaking of his head.

"Got it. Just trying to figure out how to keep it," Mac whispered, eyes locking with Methos' for a long moment. "But I can't, can I?"

"I don't know," Methos said softly and pulled Mac to him, feeling the muscular arms tighten around him. I don't know how to teach you to let go. he thought and surrendered himself to the embrace that had nothing to do with passion and everything to do with love.


It had the earmarks of a siege but the trappings of a vacation. Joe had been tracking Marcus Constantine's progress since his arrival in New York. It seems he had business, had visited with a private collector and then moved on to the Met for another meeting in late afternoon.

"Maybe it is business," Joe offered.

"Maybe it's business and business," Methos offered back He stretched his legs out in the patio chair, staring at the stretch of trees and brush off the back of the vicarage as it rose toward the mountains and took another pull at his beer. Late afternoon and other than the news of Marcus' stops and errands, it had been quiet. Except when Claire went off on a full fledged rant, complete with curses in a half dozen languages that made Methos' jaw drop. He wasn't aware anyone had translated them quite so literally. He was half tempted to give his colleague a sword and take bets that Constantine wouldn't last ten seconds.

He and MacLeod had locked up the cabin, moved the essentials and were bunking down with Joe. Mac would drive Angela and Tradere to Roanoke this afternoon and stay but Claire could not shed her responsibilities quite so quickly. She would follow on Monday.

"You are seriously calm," Joe observed.

"I am seriously...tired," Methos said and his mouth quirked in a half grin at Joe's raised eyebrow. "Not from that....you are having way too much fun at my and Mac's expense."

"It's envy, buddy. Pure unadulterated envy," Joe said with a chuckle. "He'll come alone, do you think?'

"If it's a peace parlay..." Methos agreed but sounded doubtful.

Joe was silent for along time. "If he wins...if it comes to that...what will--?" He barely knew how to phrase the question.

"What will happen? It depends on a lot of things. Maybe stop the game...stall it. If Darius was right..." the eldest Immortal said softly. "Attrition...he thought it might be forced by attrition. If he was right...well... Don't think about it, Joe. It's tampering with lives...and not just Immortal lives possibly."

"The New Gods," Joe said bitterly.

"Old ones too," Methos agreed. "There are times when I have missed that in this modern age -- always nice to be able to put your fate and destiny into someone else's hands so that none of it is your fault." His beer was empty and he got up to get another. Joe declined. "If it..." Methos said...began to say, looking at Joe for a long moment until the other man gave him a puzzled look.

"What is it?"

"Nothing. Nothing at all, Joe," Methos grinned. "Speculations brought on by tension." He headed toward the house.

He found Duncan in the kitchen, heard Angela singing somewhere. MacLeod was on the phone but he smiled when he saw Methos, nodding when the elder Immortal pulled two beers from the refrigerator. He scribbled more notes down on the pad in front of him. "I appreciate it, Dr. Angelus. Sorry to bother you on a Saturday. Enjoy your weekend," he said and set the phone down. "Specialist in Roanoke for Tray," Mac explained.

"Packed?" Methos asked.

Duncan nodded and downed a third of his beer in a swallow. "You?"

Methos nodded. "Is this going to get awkward?"

"Nope. Not as long as you are here when I get back," Mac said and came around the counter to slide his hands around Methos' waist. His lover leaned back and Mac captured his mouth briefly. "I'll call you tonight," he said and Methos chuckled. "That will be long distance."

"Be warmed up then," Mac threatened but it was easy. Reminders and cautions -- what was good between them would help balance the bad and Mac could read Methos' intention. His lover wasn't going anywhere and he wanted Marcus...if he had to meet him...on home ground. None fought so hard as in defending their own.

The singing grew closer and Methos tensed but Angela came in with Tray looking over her shoulder, away from Methos. She had a flight bag on her opposite shoulder. "Ready?" she asked Duncan with a smile.

"You don't want to wait for Claire?" Mac asked pulling away.

"I do but I also want to get there before it gets too late. Bedtime schedule for the pumpkin," she said, smiling at her son's dark head. "I'll call her when we get there. It's only a little over an hour," she said rolling her eyes. "Unlike you two, Claire and I can manage to be separated for a few hours," she smirked.

"You are an evil, wicked woman," Methos said and came forward carefully to give her a kiss.

Angela laughed but it was a little strained. "No, I am an old married woman. We already said good-bye to Joe. Other bag is in the hall. Claire can bring the rest on Monday."

Methos nodded and went to get the bag while Mac fetched his own and went to bid Dawson good-bye as well. Angela was already in the car by the time they loaded it, Tray thoroughly occupied in his car seat by pinwheels taped to either side.

"See you Monday night," Mac said closing the rear door and smiling at Tray.

"Sooner if Claire is successful in get a sub in for her classes," Methos said and glanced up as Joe came around the house. "We three are going to get drunk tonight," he grinned. "Since the children will all be gone."

"Ha ha," Mac responded. "Try not to get arrested without me." He stole a kiss and got in the car, letting Methos shut the door, backing out of the drive and waving at the two men watching.

"Getting drunk are we?" Joe asked.

"Sure. I'll even buy for a change," Methos said and went back into the house leaving Joe staring after him in open-mouthed disbelief.


Claire returned less than fifteen minutes later, taking her lover and son's departure in stride and more than ready for a night on the town at Adam's expense. She begged time to change, her escorts waiting patiently in the living room.

Joe sat on the arm of a chair, watching his friend check to make sure the phone was in his pocket for the third time. "You have it," he said at last. "Feeling caged in or just needing a distraction?" he teased.

Methos smiled but something in his expression alarmed Joe even as it changed.

"I'm ready." Claire emerged, slipping a gold hoop in her ear and stopped as the expression on Methos' face went from a smile to a grimace that fast. Joe lunged for him first, almost going down with him, as the body of the oldest Immortal went rigid, and a strangled scream escaped him. Claire was more limber -- and faster luckily, fast enough to jerk Joe back as Methos lashed out blindly, striking for an unseen enemy.

It was over nearly as fast, Methos whispering something before he collapsed. Claire crept forward, checking for a pulse and found it. "What the hell was that?"

Joe tried for a more comfortable position than the one he'd fallen in. "Since he's not epileptic, I would say Mac took a challenge," he said softly.

It took Claire about fifteen seconds to process that bit of information. Without a word, she helped Joe to his feet, then was off and under the kitchen cabinets, returning with a bottle of ammonia. A few passes under Methos' nose and he came groggily to consciousness, confused and in pain, fingers going to his temples.

"Up," she snapped, pulling him to his feet. "They have only three ways to get to Roanoke and I know the way Angela would choose...they couldn't have gotten more than halfway there. She likes the back roads."

Methos stared at her and then at Joe when Dawson grabbed his arm. "Did he win?" he asked and Claire stopped. It hadn't even occurred to her to ask. Her hands went to her mouth. After a moment, Methos nodded. "Yes," he said roughly. "He won," and unfolded himself from the floor. Claire tried unsuccessfully to get an answer on either Angela or MacLeod's cell phones. Five minutes later they were breaking the speed limit, headed east.

Claire's instincts were dead on and useless at the same time. They found the truck off the side of the road but no sign of the occupants. The electrical system of the truck was blown along with the phone they found on the seat. A careful search produce a carefully hidden body.

"Which way would they go for help?" Methos asked and Claire pointed ahead. "About ten miles. Unless someone picked them up. Wouldn't they have called?"

"Drive," Methos ordered and Claire did and there was a call just as they reached the outskirts of the next town. Methos snatched it up. "We're two minutes from you," he said flatly and Claire floored the gas pedal.

MacLeod looked like hell and Angela not much better. "They took Tray," Angela whispered to her mate. She had a bruise on her face and one wrist was sprained. Mac showed blooding but the wounds were long healed.

"Three...one for me and two for a child," MacLeod grated out. "They had to have been..."

"Watching us...following us," Methos said flatly and stepped into the phone booth to check the directory.

"We should go after them," Mac said.

"Probably and if you want to tell me where to start looking, I'll be glad to head that way." Methos found the number he was looking for -- a towing service. He made arrangements to have the truck picked up, then they were all piling into the car; Methos driving with Joe in the front. "They will contact us," Methos said to reassure Angela. "They don't want Tray, really. All three were Immortal, Mac?"

"Yes," The Highlander said shortly. Methos glanced in the rear mirror at him and caught his eye, his meaning clear. Self-recrimination availed them nothing and Mac gave a terse nod.

"Good. That means they mean to keep it as private as possible," Methos murmured

"What do we do now?" Claire demanded. "Let's call the police...have them search. Kidnapping is a federal offense."

"Which would involve the FBI which would lead them eventually to a decapitated body on the roadside," Joe offered calmly.

"I wish I had never met you," Claire said harshly and Methos said nothing, no emotion at all showed on his face.

And no one contradicted her.


It took longer than Methos expected but the delay was not surprising. The close attentions of his watcher provided that Constantine wasn't able to get a flight out until Sunday. In the meantime, Claire would not speak or look at Methos or MacLeod and barely to Joe, Angela destroyed more pots than she made and Joe knew a decision had been made before the question had been asked.

He could see it in the way MacLeod hovered near the oldest Immortal and in how Methos allowed him to hover. When he finally asked he didn't like the answer.

"Two choices, Joe," Methos said evenly. "Whore or Fight. Father more children or give a guarantee I won't interfere again. The only way Marcus can guarantee that is if I am dead. And even if I whore for him, it won't last. Long enough to replace those I've killed. I don't give it more than that."

"You've thought about saying yes to this, haven't you?" Joe asked him.

"Yes. Quite a lot actually," Methos said cautiously, sitting on the arm of Duncan's chair, his lover's arm around his waist. "But I spent my time in servitude to whorehouses a long time ago. I was a slave then. I don't intend to go back to it now...I don't think," he said softly, glancing at Duncan and Joe needed no imagination at all to understand under what circumstance Methos might accept such a deal. But the details needed clarification.

"You mean he would--"

"I doubt he would use chains, this time," Methos said and his willingness to speak of this at all with no hedging made Joe extremely nervous. He had the feeling that if he asked, Methos would tell him anything and everything Joe ever wanted to know about the eldest Immortal's long life.

Because it wouldn't matter. Because he wouldn't need to avoid the memories any longer. The past had no power over Methos now -- only the future.

If he had one. They...if they had one, he amended later as he got ready for bed. He wasn't sure one man could exist without the other and that had never struck him so forcibly before. Not even a couple of years back when he thought Methos would die.

The blankets offered poor comfort to him when he realized that both men -- both his friends -- had been aware of this possibility for far longer than he had and he was supposed to be a trained observer. The teasing about their physical relationship took on a macabre cast -- how much time did it take to cram an eternity worth of loving into your life to make sure it was not forgotten? Immortals died. Joe knew that but ...but ....

Methos had lived forever it seemed and Joe wanted Mac to do the same. The Game, The prize...the history these two men represented...it was worthless to them.

And it couldn't last forever -- could it?


"You scared Joe," Mac whispered against Methos' hair. They had taken the guest room in the vicarage, Claire only barely tolerating their closeness. If Methos was hurt by her rejection or her anger he gave no sign of it. Nor would he, Mac knew. They had neither the time nor the energy to address the issue as if it mattered. They both understood her feelings but even Mac had been unable to give voice to the protest that it wasn't fair. It wasn't -- not to Claire or Angela or Methos. But Joe was a different matter entirely.

Their room was right next to their host's so they were determined to keep as quiet as possible even with Joe's wry assurance that he could sleep through anything.

"I don't want him to be surprised, and he deserves to know. He's a good man."

"Aye, that he is," Duncan said softly, rubbing his lover's bare back, letting his fingers brush gently over the smooth skin.

"I won't go with Marcus -- not in any way," Methos said against his throat and MacLeod's hand went still.

"You can't make that decision for me," Mac said in a still, quiet tone.

"No, but I can make it for me. Sword and Shield...I would be Shield now," Methos lay quietly against Mac's chest, heard the big heart quicken. He did not flinch when the hand closed tightly over his shoulder, bruising his skin, nor pull back when MacLeod's mouth covered his brutally, demanding entry. He was wrenched back, on his back, MacLeod hovering above him, caught between anger and grief.

"Opening myself to loving didn't change anything, Mac," Methos reminded him. Another fight, another surrender, one that had left them open for all that followed.

"I don't want it," Mac breathed harshly.

"Neither do I. I have what I wanted. You asked me once why survive. You said you found the answer. It's not a sure thing...but it is..."

"Don't," MacLeod whispered, closing his eyes and pressing his fingers to Methos' lips. "Say you'll live."

"I'll live," Methos said it without hesitation.

"Grow stronger."

"Yes."

"Fight another day."

"I don't want to fight at all anymore," Methos said and the dark eyes flashed open again to stare at him. With a curse Mac pushed away and off the bed. Methos did not move. It was an old argument and one they had fought before. But it was no longer a burden Methos felt he had to carry -- MacLeod had shown him that, taught him that -- given it to him along with his heart and soul. He watched his lover, saw the muscles tighten in the broad back, along his neck. MacLeod was all about power. Not the petty and selfish struggles that Kronos and Suru and Constantine played with, but the use of strength and charisma and compassion. It took all three to be a power that healed, plus something else that even Methos had only a brushing acquaintance with. It wasn't honor -- although that was part of it; nor righteousness -- but that was there too. Nor was it even faith -- but that might be the biggest part of all. It had allowed Mac to overcome the death of his student -- his son. Allowed him to see through Cassandra's manipulations, to fight through his own darkness, to shed the influences of older, more powerful Immortals time and again. Noblesse de Coeur. Centered in himself but outside himself. You could not shatter MacLeod's heart or will because he spread it like riches to others. You would have to kill them all. His words now were selfish, but so it was. He could want for himself but he could only do for others. The Warrior has become Chieftain and you never noticed, Methos thought fondly, watching that broad back bow under the burden. It would straighten again.

Mac got as far as the door. "This isn't fair."

"No."

"You set this up...you knew it."

"Yes. One winner, Mac. It can't be Marcus."

"You decided. You have no right."

"None at all."

"Damn you."

"No. I've been blessed. Don't waste it," Methos murmured and got up, moving behind Duncan but not touching him. "Someone wise once said that there are things worth dying for. But those same things, if they are worth dying for -- are worth living for. "

"Then take your own advice."

"I plan to. Duncan," he waited until the Highlander turned to face him, eyes bright, mouth set and angry. "When I fight, I fight to win. You know that."

"Only when you fight for yourself. And you aren't -- won't ."

"Will too," Methos countered. "Intend to. But I won't go with Marcus. I go with the winner. I always have."

"You would throw that in my face," Mac said remembering how they first came together -- almost torn apart by The Horsemen, by Methos' past...by another madman. He reached out, sliding his fingers along Methos' neck and pulled him closer. "I could kill you and keep you dead until Marcus is," he said huskily.

Methos nodded. "You could. You could wait until he calls and get there ahead of time and shoot him in the back until I could take his head, too. Are you ready to do all that for something you don't believe in?"

"I believe in you."

The hazel eyes softened and Mac knew the argument was lost. Methos had gained part of himself back -- that long discarded honor, a reason to live and not just survive. Found it in him...in a four hundred year old fool.

"Puts us on level ground finally," Methos said quietly. He had no accusation to render, nor any great words of wisdom. "Tell me honestly. If the choice come to it, would you let that child's fate remain with Marcus Constantine?"

"He won't kill him," Mac said. "Not a child."

"The Romans were known to abandon children when they had too many. Leave them for beasts...or the bordellos, if they lived long enough. The slave yards. Tray, the children he has seen to all these years; they aren't people to him...they are...property, commodities. Things to be used...pawns to be played. And Tray, alive or dead, is of no use to him except as leverage."

It was cold hearted, calculated, and very likely true, Mac thought, not liking how the conversation was going. "So we'll meet him -- and get Tray."

"Yes, we will." Methos caught one of MacLeod's hands in his, bringing their joined hands up between them. "But Claire and Angela won't live forever. If Marcus takes me, he will keep Tray for the same reason he has taken him now. There is no bargain we can make."

"You would be alive....we have time on our side."

Methos dropped his gaze and studied their hands. "Is that what you want?"

"Yes," Mac said, knowing what he was saying, what it meant.

"If he gives us that choice, then I'll take it," Methos said softly and pulled away. "Coming to bed?"

Mac nodded and followed him, turning off the light and moving under the blankets. He was almost tearfully glad that Methos did not object or pull away when he spooned himself against his lover's back, Methos clasping their hands together across his chest and Mac buried his face in his lover's hair.

Laying in the darkness though, he thought about the easy answer. Methos would whore, for Marcus for MacLeod, if the offer came. No lies. The promise was unspoken but there and Mac knew what the answer meant and had taken it. And when you are dead, who will throw a lifeline to this dying Scot, then?

"Do you want to die?" A whisper against the pale, cool skin and silence.

"No." Finally. As sure and steady as the ages.

They would fight then, sword and shield. Back to back. "Can we win?"

Methos turned to him, eyes gleaming like gold in the darkness as he touched Mac's face. He moistened his lips and spoke steadily, softly, "There are a lot of ways to win, Duncan. Constantine is not so poor a general to leave his army unable to function should he fall. So tell me what you mean by 'win'. Detail the campaign."

"That Tray be returned to his parents, unharmed. That you be returned to me unharmed and that Constantine's hold on the young of our race be broken finally and for good."

"By we two?"

"Yes."

"By fair means or foul?" Methos asked and Mac was silent for a long time.

"Yes."

"And what of you then? If we resort to the fight I might once have waged, then what have we won? That you would become as those you have fought against all your life? That is no victory, Duncan. Not for me. Not for yourself. Perhaps for Marcus, for he will then be as worthy as any other to fight for the prize."

"You have learned this, taken this part of me as part of yourself," Duncan said softly. "And it will get you killed."

"And you have learned survival at any cost, and it will win you the day," Methos said. "Ask me again."

MacLeod's eyes burned and his voice was thick "Winning means that Tray will be returned to his Claire and Angela, unharmed. You will be returned to me unharmed, Constantine's hold on the young of our race be broken finally and for good and that all will be done with...."

"Honor. With fairness and under the rules of our race. That you will not sacrifice who you are for what you want," Methos said implacably and with a faint smile. "The answer is: I don't know if we can accomplish all four things, Mac. Marcus will challenge by the rules of the game even though he holds Tray as hostage to your honor, Mac. It is not me that he holds the child for, but you. And in holding you, he holds me."

"He was a good student of yours, then," Mac commented and Methos chuckled.

"One of the best. But I have hidden a second blade..." he added and MacLeod sat up and turned on the light to stare at his lover.

"Did you plan on telling me this?" He demanded. Anger seethed through him as he stared at Methos, now propped up on his side with one hand under his head. He had been wrenched emotionally for hours only to find out now...now, Methos had a plan.

A second blade. Not a way to guarantee they would win, only that the fight would not go as Marcus had planned. They would win at any cost, but Methos had the installment plan rigged for payment. "And what do you mean by winning?" he asked finally but his voice was still tight.

"That Tray be returned, you and I are together, Constantine is broken and you remain who you are," Methos said, and MacLeod did not miss the variance in degrees.

MacLeod closed his eyes and shook his head. He was half tempted to do as he said, kill Methos, spirit his devious lover off to some remote location and then go after Marcus himself. It would certainly be simpler and he preferred things simple but he had, in his opinion, waited too long. He had left the next move to Marcus. Methos may well have forced it .

"Mac," the soft voice insinuated itself into the turmoil of his thoughts, soothing them slightly, giving him a single focus point, as did his lover's presence, warm and close behind him, the strong arms coming around his waist, the familiar planes of Methos' face pressed against his shoulder. A shield against even the deepest conflicts in MacLeod's soul. He leaned back slightly and Methos shifted so his chin rested on MacLeod's shoulder. "Basically, I don't know what will happen or how. But I can see the possible outcomes...just not all of them. But I will be and you must be, prepared for all things...that is the Boy Scout motto, isn't it?"

The chuckle was as much sob as laughter, but there was laughter. "Including running?"

"Even that," Methos smiled against his shoulder and kissed the dark skin.

"I never meant to change you so," Mac said, covering the arms at his waist with his hands.

"Yes, you did. As I meant to change you. I think we can both claim some modicum of success."

"Is this 'the world is coming to an end, let me comfort you, honey,' speech?" MacLeod asked and smiled faintly at the silent laughter he felt against his back. "Because if it is, I'd rather you didn't."

"Well, it's not quite the end of the world. I tend to think that is a ways off yet." A gentle pull on his shoulder and MacLeod moved to face the man behind him. He was glad he had turned the light on so he could see the face, to relax under the humor in the gold-green eyes that even now seemed to see far past anything Mac could ever want or imagine. The wry twist of the generous mouth that Mac prayed would speak words that could once more lift the dark moodiness of his heritage from his shoulders.

The words were not there. Not this time. Just a glance and a smile and a peace that came from knowing your place in the scheme of things for one brief moment with no opinion on whether that place were good or bad. Just fitting into the moment.

It needed words, MacLeod thought, but he could not summon them. It needed some action or purpose but there was no spark of arousal in body or soul; they had burned those passions out, if not forever, then for the time they needed to attain their purpose -- whatever or however that purpose came to be. And did you leave me the gift of prophecy along with your curses, Cassandra? he thought as he reached out to touch that mouth, to silence it where no silencing was needed. He was granted no flash of insight or foretelling, but it lay heavy on him anyway as he reached over to turn out the light once more and pull the familiar body against him. It didn't surprise him that Methos finally succumbed to sleep -- or that the same peace was denied him. It seemed right that he should stand Shield this night, to watch over his brother and friend and he tried to memorize the feel of the body against his, the scent and texture of it, only he could not say why, for even in his darkest imaginings, he did not think this would be forever denied him. Not forever, but then forever was a matter of degrees.

Nor, later in his life, did he find it odd that the kiss that greeted the day was the one he remembered when all else faded from memory.


Joe Dawson woke to the smell of freshly brewed coffee and eggs, sweet cured Virginia ham and softened laughter. Everything else was a dream, then, he decided as he woke more fully and began his day as he had nearly fifty others. Or not all a dream, he amended as he entered the kitchen to find Methos perched on his kitchen counter with a piece of toast and ham in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, the hazel eyes dancing in laughter at something his partner had said. Mac handed him a cup and Dawson felt wrapped in cotton wool as if nothing were quite real even though all sensations-- hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch -- were sharper and clearer than they had been since he was twenty years old in an unnamed jungle taut with tension as he waited for death to come from some unknown direction.

"Have you been to the house?" he asked and got two downcast looks and the shake of Duncan's head. "I'll go over," he offered and Methos answered him with a faint smile.

"No purpose, Joe. They won't call Claire and Angela for this."

It hadn't been a dream then, nor even quite a nightmare, just a continuation of the same tension-fraught life. How horribly mundane, Joe thought. It seemed so even as the morning stretched into midday and there was the sound of sharpening blades and the click and slide of his own Walther as he oiled and cleaned and loaded it. Neither of his friends questioned his preparations nor denied his right to make them. But all sounds stopped every time the phone sounded and Joe had the odd feeling that he was at the command post of some great battle, marking troop movements.

Until the call came that was not for him, but for MacLeod.

"You have to know I never wanted this," Marcus Constantine's voice was sincere as the Pope's and sorrowed as the Virgin Mary's. "Before you ask, the child is fine, unharmed and, as you know, barely aware that his world has changed."

"What do you want?" MacLeod asked evenly, opening his stance so Methos could listen as well.

"I would like to find a peaceful resolution to all of this...allow me my own destiny, Duncan and I will allow yours."

"And exactly how would that work, Marcus?" Mac asked him.

"Simple exchange of values. Join me. Help me to end the Game by keeping our race alive and I will return the child to his parents."

"That's it? What about Methos?"

"He is the oldest of us, Duncan. I have no wish to be the end of his life."

"As long as he can still father children for the realization of your destiny?"

"That would be his choice. We can end this, Duncan."

"On my word?"

There was a hesitation as if Marcus were insulted. "Your word, Duncan MacLeod, is one of the few constants in my life."

"And if I agree?"

"Simple as well. I will be at Methos' retreat. Bring your friend, the Watcher, and I will surrender the boy to him and allow them to leave. You will return with me to London and I will make you familiar with all the plans I have made, the Immortals I have guided. Methos was correct. This endeavor is best not left to the guidance of one man or woman but of a triad. We will rebuild what I had with Darius and Rebekah."

"And afterward?"

"Our lives go on. You may return to your home -- to Methos if you like. As needed, you will serve this ideal, with Cierwyddyn as our third. You know her as well -- trust her, perhaps more than you trust me."

"Cierwyddyn has agreed to this?" Mac asked looking at his lover in confusion but Methos' face betrayed nothing.

"She is on her way here to meet with us. Didn't Methos tell you? It was she who intervened before Methos gave up his slaughter. She who had you summoned before he destroyed himself and me."

There was no wavering of the hazel eyes, no agreement or denial. "When do you want to meet?"

"Cierwyddyn cannot get here before dusk, so at that time. If we have an agreement we can settle our differences and I will buy dinner. Perhaps to rebuild some of the friendship we have lost."

"I need to discuss this with Methos." Mac hedged his comments. This was not what he expected, not this wholly reasonable compromise.

"I fully understand, Duncan. Please recall, though, that both he and I were raised in a different time. We are tacticians by birth, by influence. We often see battle where there are none. Here is my number," he offered up both a cell phone and a pager number. "Even if I do not hear from you, I will be at the cabin at dusk with young Tradere."

"Meet with me now and let me return Tray to his parents. Then we'll talk."

"If that is what you wish. I am at the cabin now."

"Why can't you bring him here?"

"I will if that is what you want, Duncan. Regardless of your decision, I will return the child to your friends. I have no quarrel with children, I merely needed to arrange it so you would listen to me, to open the lines of communication once more. Extend my sincerest apologies to Tradere's parents. I will make what reparations there that I can. Even unto making sure the child never need fear the threat of another Immortal. I am not going anywhere. Take a few minutes and speak with Methos. I will wait to hear from you."

Joe watched the pair expectantly but nothing was said for long moments as MacLeod closed the phone and lay it on the table. He stared at it then at Joe, who met his gaze with confusion.

"What did he say? What are the conditions?"

"There are none. He will bring Tray here, now, if I ask him to."

"Then why didn't you!" Joe demanded, staring at MacLeod but the Highlander was looking at Methos.

"You heard it all?" Mac asked Methos, silently begging his lover to offer some comment, advice, opinion.

"I heard."

"Then why didn't I tell him to bring Tray here? Now? Why are we not going after him?" he asked him and waited. Methos said nothing, but after a moment he gave a small nod and straightened up. MacLeod's eyes were riveted to the spot for long moments after Methos had left. "Get you gun and your coat and your courage and your faith, Joe," Mac said softly and followed his lover.

Methos was waiting for them by the truck, dark blue sunglasses covering his eyes, the heavy weight of a long coat over one arm. The child seat was in the back seat already. He stood by the passenger side, leaning against the dark green metal and glanced at them both when they approached before tossing the key to MacLeod and opening the back door for Joe.

Joe Dawson could not say what emotion stifled the air in the ten minute drive to the cabin. There was anger and determination, suspicion and acceptance. And silence. Too much silence.

The cabin looked the same, the yard needed some weeding but it was otherwise as welcoming and inviting as ever. A retreat as Constantine had named it. A haven that was backed by the ancient mountains, the neighborhoods and homes below obscured from sight by the thick treeline that stretched a quarter mile from the access road to the plateau.

There were three cars already parked there and MacLeod sat in the truck for a long moment, the engine still running, body tense and jaw tightened. Methos looked inordinately relaxed.

They remained there until the door opened and Marcus Constantine emerged with Tray in his arms. He was dressed casually for Constantine, the slacks cut comfortably and the cardigan the exact color of his blue eyes, quite the handsome ex-general, the picture of an unusual patriarchy.

Tradere was unharmed, a little rumpled, but he was as relaxed in Constantine's arms as he would be in his mother's.

Constantine made the first move, coming down the steps and MacLeod moved out of the vehicle, leaving it running, Joe and Methos following easily. Joe's hand slipped into his pocket, closing around the gun there and releasing the safety.

"Mr. Dawson, I believe you are the recipient of this rather precious package," Constantine said with a smile. "A strange child. Not what I expected from one of your offspring, Miklos. Or perhaps this is the fault of his mother? Not the last legacy I think you hoped to leave," he said genially and with some compassion.

"My legacy lies elsewhere, Marcus," Methos said softly. "Joe," he urged and Dawson came forward, checking his balance as he had to forego use of his cane for a moment to take Tray, settling the child on his hip.

"And have you come to me with a decision, Duncan?" Marcus turned his attention to the younger Immortal.

"No. There can be no discussion while you had a hostage," Mac said. "I will be in touch," he said, motioning Joe toward the truck.

"Please, MacLeod. You have the child. Let us end this now," Marcus pleaded.

"Later, Marcus," MacLeod said and moved back as Joe turned to place Tray in the car seat.

Marcus studied him for a moment. "I am afraid I must have your decision sooner than that," he said and there was real sorrow in his voice.

"Why?"

"Because Cierwyddyn is coming," Methos said softly and pulled his sword from beside the seat. "And she has agreed to none of this," he added and met Marcus' suddenly cold gaze.

"A dutiful child," Marcus agreed and then moved at the same time the cause of MacLeod's tension appeared. Mac reached for Joe and Methos for his son, both of them pulling and whirling away even before the bullets took out the tires of the truck. It was an instinctive reaction from both men for the truck was the target. The firing ended as quickly as it had begun and Marcus regained the porch, flanked by his new centurions, an honor guard of Immortals, eleven in all -- twelve with Marcus, only three of whom Joe recognized from his recent forays into the reports to ferret out Constantine's known associates.

"We had an agreement, I thought, Duncan," Marcus said as his companions set their guns aside, turned over to the keeping of one man, who locked them in a case.

MacLeod was on his feet again and pulling Joe to his, katana out, the two of them between Marcus and Methos and Tradere.

Until Tradere started screaming again,. It rattled even the men and women backing Marcus, the terror in the small voice, the wild creature the quiet boy had become on seeing Methos' face. The cause of Tray's distress said nothing, nor allowed anything to show in his face save a certain ability to ignore what, to the rest of them, was the sound of distant nightmares. Methos moved forward, stooping to pick up his own blade, forgotten on the ground, before once more surrendering Tradere to Joe. Within a few moments, fascinated by the metal bands on Joe's cane, Tradere was quiet once more, but did not lift his head again to look at anything or anyone.

"So, Cassandra made good her promise," Marcus said, softly.

Whatever plan Methos might have had was shattered there and then and he moved, targeting Marcus only to find one of the younger Immortals blocking his attack.

"Challenge," the younger Immortal said firmly, sandy hair and blue eyes reminiscent of the man who was his sire.

"Ten to two, Marcus?" MacLeod snapped out.

"Not by my choice," Marcus returned. "One to one, as the rules state." Then there was no more argument or discussion as Methos pushed the younger man off and the fight was joined. MacLeod could do nothing, save make sure no one tried to once more gain hostages.

He need not have worried. Marcus was as good as the letter of his word. No one interfered with the battle as Methos and his opponent circled, parried and tested. Faint hope that Marcus would send his elite into a challenge untrained or unskilled. Inexperienced perhaps, but not unskilled.

The onlookers moved, fanning out, surrounding the battling pair with eyes to observe, not interfere. Nor to interfere with MacLeod nor Joe and his charge as Mac edged them toward the house. "Stay," he warned Joe as they gained the steps. "They have no interest in you at all, no matter the outcome," Mac warned and then was back, close, as he watched his brother fight.

It felt like it lasted longer than it did and MacLeod had the impression that no one was surprised at the outcome, including Methos' opponent. The body fell and Mac moved, close enough to fend off challengers, momentarily forgetting that he would be in no better condition than Methos.

The Quickening was blissfully short, an indication of the lack of experience of the fallen, but it left Methos on his knees and MacLeod with his peripheral vision severely diminished as pain lanced through his temples. He was at Methos' side though, shield and sword exchanged as easily as a touch.

No one moved. Not until Methos pulled himself to his feet, stood alone and brought himself to his full height, the fire in his eyes undiminished and fell back as another came forward, a woman whose black hair was cropped in a short, lovely cap of curls, her slender blade not unlike MacLeod's katana. She moved with the grace of a dancer and the speed of sprinter. "Challenge," she claimed of MacLeod.

Marcus Constantine was nothing if not a tactician.

She was quick and fast and skilled and as doomed as her sibling, yet she fought with the courage of her heritage and when MacLeod would have offered leniency, his blade at her throat, she attacked again.

Joe Dawson watched in horrified fascination as the drama was replayed again. Enough time was given to MacLeod to recover, for Methos to recover, the grassy circle blooded already. A slight change in maneuvering as Constantine realized that both men would regain their equilibrium at approximately the same time and so the next challenges were met simultaneously, the diminishing circle growing less confining. Joe had hopes that perhaps one or two would falter, but they did not. Constantine had not chosen the faint hearted.

The gun lay heavy in his pocket, heavier than the slight weight of Tradere in his arms, but he made no reach for it and his friends, who sweated and bled in the circle of their own honor, gave him no glance or indication that they would welcome his interference. Joe didn't fear for Tradere. The child would be -- as Marcus promised -- delivered back to his parents unharmed. But he was not included in this clemency, he knew. If he left or if he died, no one would ever know what transpired here.

He wished desperately that he did not know -- would never know.

It became, almost, the stuff of epics. The challengers were too many from the outset and the defenders denied quarter. Tradere would watch the pyrotechnics as they lanced through the air, cock his head at the ring of steel, but otherwise kept his eyes averted save when the Quickenings began and, in Joe's overwrought senses, the child flinched every time.

The promised dusk came and like any good field general, Marcus offered to his enemy the brief peace of evening offices, to rest for enough time to drink the water set out for them before their potential opponents backed away again. And the same was offered to Joe, with silent courtesy and a bottle for Tray.

Then it began again.

At one point the two of them collided violently, literally fighting back to back and Joe could not help but be reminded of gladiatorial games in movies he had watched as a child. Seeing the look on Constantine's face, he knew the analogy was not lost on the ex-Roman General either.

Methos slipped, going down heavily to one knee, bloodied and battered, his face gray with exhaustion and pain and something close enough to despair, Joe would never be able to suffer the emotion again without the ancient Immortal's face haunting him. MacLeod blocked a parry with a snarl of anger, shoving the other man off and managed to get one arm hooked under Methos' shoulder and get him on his feet again -- barely in time for Methos to block a blow sweeping back and under and managing a deep belly wound in his opponent. The older Immortal wasn't one to waste an opportunity.

There was no grace and no finesse to his blow but it was effective enough. They could not handle two together again. Not and survive. Mac found an opening and ran his man through, killing him but not beheading him, still standing with his back to Methos as the Quickening began. Methos was sobbing before the first tendrils touched him and even as it began, Mac and Joe both saw the next Immortal lining up to take his fallen brother's place.

With four left to go. They would wear them down by sheer numbers, one on one or not. It wasn't bad enough that they were being forced to take the Quickenings one after another. The backlash between them was palpable, MacLeod unable to get far enough away not to feel the agony Methos was suffering, or to deny his own.

The Quickening died and MacLeod moved, pulling Methos from the tight ball that curled his body, eyes watching the circle warily.

"Not...not again," Methos whispered against MacLeod's shoulder. "They want me, Mac. Marcus wants me. I'm yours."

"Don't ask me this..." MacLeod breathed against the sweat slicked hair.

"If he takes me you'll never stand against him..." Unspoken was the prayer that if MacLeod took Methos' Quickening there would not be an Immortal on the planet that could stand against him in a fair fight...or even an unfair one.

This was unfair. They were both being ravaged by the repeated Quickenings, MacLeod not even sure if they survived their sanity would survive. The gathering that wasn't played by the same rules, twisted and perverted. "Then Live," Mac said, offering the hilt of his sword to Methos. The older man stared at it and closed his eyes.

"I have. I stand shield, brother," he said, turning the blade back. Eyes locked for long moments and MacLeod's mouth tightened, understanding the oath finally.

"I will..." Mac choked, aware the other Immortals were moving. Ironic that being Immortal had not bought them enough time. Methos tensed, then MacLeod. More Immortals were arriving. "I will be...I am the sword," he said almost unheard.

Methos relaxed against MacLeod, body shuddering but a faint smile on his lips as if he had finally achieved something he had prayed for -- rest. Mac held him briefly, every part of his body hurt and holding the katana upright was requiring all of his concentration.

"We can make this quick," Marcus said, almost pleading as new challengers positioned themselves.

"Live. Grow Stronger," Methos demanded the promise and MacLeod nodded tightly.

"Wait for me." Demanding his own promise back just as fiercely.

"I will," Methos whispered, touching Mac's face, then opening his mouth under the offered kiss.

MacLeod searched the circle, looking for any other answer, eyes meeting Joe's briefly where his hands rested on Tradere's shoulders. There was none. Marcus was ready to fight until one or both faltered. His only way to Methos was through MacLeod and they both knew it. For one brief moment MacLeod met the blue eyes, Marcus seeing his intent before he acted on it.

His protest might have been silent for all MacLeod heard, his concentration on the face lifted up to his, the hazel eyes lost to him forever.

With no other answer, Mac suddenly swung, not closing his eyes as the blade bit through flesh and muscle and bone, watching the head drop and the body a moment after, before holding his sword up, hilt in one hand, blade in the other. He raised it as the mist gathered around the body, coalescing in a sheen of pearly white and blue.

"METHOS!" His scream was part tortured cry, part plea as the katana came down across his bent knee and was snapped in half. Without a word, he lay down, covering the still body with his own.

The mist rose around him, curled and caressed as if carrying its own sorrow. Watching the swords lowered as the Immortals moved away, Joe turned away as well, pulling on the boy's shoulder. Tradere pulled away and moved forward on unsteady legs toward the glowing mist.

"Tray!" Joe called, lunging for the boy and missing. Mac lifted his head, his expression not one Joe thought ever to see on a living face.

With the suddenness of a cobra the mist shifted, wavered and struck, tendrils wrapping around the boy. The child turned, fascinated by the light, by the way it raised the hairs on his small arms.

Then both cotton forms of mist started to raise straight up, like columns of light, one large, one small, centering on MacLeod and the boy.

And came down with the power of a massive sledgehammer.

Mac screamed, Trey just crumpled, and then no one could see or get close enough to either of them to intervene. The winds rose like a hurricane, had sprung from nowhere, knocking Joe off his feet, scattering the other Immortals. More tendrils struck out, shrieking around the circle like a maddened bane-shee, power striking them with enough power to slam them to the ground but never lingering then rose again like a some great, opening flower to cover the entire sky. Joe could hear the murmurs, voices whose words he could not understand, sounds not heard for 5000 years echoing around them until he had to cover his ears or go mad from the sound. There were car alarms going off for blocks, Joe barely cognizant of the fact that there was not a streetlight or power line still up because the sky was so bright, like a bizarre sunshine casting negative shadows.

The seeking ball of light hovered, not the sheer wildness of other Quickenings but something so tight it might have been a living thing. Then it dove, split, the largest section ripping through MacLeod, spreading through him, wrapping around him and lifting him a gently as if by his lover's arms. The smaller one hovered over Trey and then covered him as well, lightly, wrapping the child like a blanket. There was nothing but silence for long moments before the sound started again, a wail, a cry, ripped from MacLeod's throat and then silenced as that sparse shield of light above them descended. Touching everything and everyone in the circle.

Joe felt the earth rumble as it dropped and then heard nothing but his own scream as it settled on top of him with five millennia's worth of force.

MacLeod stirred, feeling the cool earth below him and a light pattering of rain on his head and face. He moved, feeling strangely at peace, until what had happened intruded on his consciousness, and even then it didn't fade entirely. Grief, yes. Sorrow. But he did not feel as empty as he expected. There was a fullness to his mind, his thoughts, colors brighter to his eyes even in the darkness. He pushed upward and reached down, feeling the body beneath him already cooling, he could not lift his eyes to the head, focusing on The left hand where light glinted off a thin band of metal and Mac reached for the ring, pulling it off the cold finger, closing his fist over it, and looked around.

Tray was but a few feet away, tiny body spread out on the grass like he was sleeping. Mac moved toward him, fell, and moved again, his body not quite willing to respond.

Marcus clambered to his feet, eyes glazed, face shocked and angry. The others were moving as well, closing in.

Mac rose, cradling Tradere against his chest, body and mind numb even as he picked up Methos' sword.

"It's over." The voice was raw, unfamiliar, so unlike MacLeod's usual tone, he might not have been speaking at all. Gently, he lay Tray beside Joe and turned to face Marcus. "Challenge," he whispered hoarsely.

"You fool!" Marcus said. "End it now, MacLeod."

"I will. Challenge." Marcus met his gaze and then another of his children came to stand...to stand Shield for his father. MacLeod backed up, hardly able to remain erect beneath his grief but he would fight for the right to take Marcus.

"It's over, Marcus." The voice was strong, a woman's voice and the four men and Marcus turned. Not more of Marcus' trained legions but the mares of his stable, the dams of his bold, new race.

Cierwyddyn spared not even a glance at MacLeod or the boy, engaging the man nearest her ferociously. He fell quickly, startled into foolishness, inborn to respect the breeding females among them. Cierwyddyn took the Quickening upright, her five sisters flanking her: Amanda, her face already wet with tears and angry. Grace, calm and solemn, of them all the only one who turned her gaze to MacLeod. Alyx, as proud a warrior as her Celtic cousin and hating the Roman for what he had become and two women Mac did not recognize, one dusky skinned, and tall, the other fair skinned and dark-haired, Mac refusing to see the resemblance when Methos was lost to him.

"We warned you, Marcus. This is about life, not death," Cierwyddyn said when she recovered, laying her hand on Grace's arm. "And so it shall be. No man shall know. Never again. We want to raise children, not armies. Bring life, not dynasties."

Swift as wind the challenges went out, Marcus held by the reversal and similarity of his own plans as three more heads fell. One was the pale skinned woman's but Amanda stepped up to her place and when it was over, she and Grace came to Duncan, flanking him as Alyx and the dark skinned woman and Cierwyddyn circled Marcus.

"No challenge, no trial, no mercy," Alyx said even as Marcus drew his sword. He had no chance and no real heart for the fight. His plans were broken and bleeding on the ground, his hope for power surrendered to another.

He was a Roman though. He died well.

Joe stirred from his position on the porch then went still again. He had heard the last but it was registering in a delayed fashion.

MacLeod tried to better his defense.

"It's all right, Duncan," Amanda said and slipped up beside him, non-threatening, Grace moving to his other side, both aware of the shock still gripping the Highlander.

"How...could you not have gotten....I ..killed... " He broke, Grace easing him down, Amanda gathering the child in her arms as she knelt beside him. Cierwyddyn went to her knees as well, driving the point of her sword into the earth, Alyx and her companion flanking her...standing shield.

"Methos contacted me," Cierwyddyn said softly, sorrow in her voice and face as she reached out to touch MacLeod's "Listen carefully to me Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. We know what you have done. What you have sacrificed and lost. As far as we know, no other male Immortal knows the origins of Immortal Children and there are precious few, if any, males of an age to sire our children, now. What Marcus tried to do...did do...will not be allowed to happen again if we can help it. The Gathering may be too close for this to make any difference at all but I think...we think...with so few old ones left to drive it...we may have purchased time enough to see new children borne eventually. But that is our game to play and no longer yours. Do you understand? Right now you want your own death. I would grant it to you save this...we cannot decide who will win the game...we do not plan so deeply. But of what is left of us...you are still the promise Darius saw, that Rebekah believed in and Methos died for. They were our teachers, not Marcus. We would have you live and in a few centuries, perhaps it is your blood and your honor that will carry our race forward. Your children who will raise their faces up and find a way to either end this game or win it. But none can know. Tell what you know and you will meet Marcus' fate...by fair means or foul. So I ask you, Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, you who have been Shield Brother to the father of most of us, will you stand shield for our children's futures?"

"Damn you..." MacLeod whispered, and Grace leaned close, her arms about his neck. "You could have stopped this...stopped me if you had come sooner!"

"True. But such is the promise I made to Methos. We few could not take on all of those gathered and aligned with Marcus. He made the way, deliberately. Your life, MacLeod. Not his own. Had he prevailed, we might yet have him with us...but he did not could not and..." Cierwyddyn paused. "Nor expected to," she added softly. "He was my father, Duncan. I am not so obedient a daughter, but in this...he began what Marcus so twisted and would have done so again with you as the example...of what such a father could be. So he asked that if the choice come, it come to you and his son."

Amanda shifted, laying Tradere in MacLeod's empty arms again. "A life for a life, Duncan," she said and kissed his temple. "Cherish him as if he were your own, until you can sire your own."

The frail life in his arms stirred, turned into Duncan's chest and sighed and Duncan curled around the tiny body, sobbing silently, with Grace and Amanda to warm his chilled body as nothing or no one else could warm his soul.

The other women turned their hands to the task women had done for centuries: clearing the debris left from a war that had no winners.


~Fini~

For the Unfinished but nearly complete resolution of the Storm Front Series...please click here.  This Sword Unbroken ties up all the loose ends but there are bridges to build and details to fill in  -- there is no ETA as to when I'll get back to this. MdR 9/99