With My Shield
by Maygra de Rhema

continued from part one...

Part Two:

Methos' hands were steady as he lifted the thick rope of hair, narrowed eyes searching the box, then set it down again. "Joe, I need your cell phone."

"It's yours," Joe said reaching under the bar and handing it to him. "What are you going to do?"

"Find MacLeod."

"And how are you going to do that?"

"Call him. If he has Mac, he has Mac's cell phone. He...whoever he is...didn't give us way to get in touch with him. Which means he will try to get in touch with me somehow. He's setting the stage, but I have a fairly good idea where this little drama is going to be played out. The man's careless." Methos said softly and held up the box lid showing the pickup address. "He lured Mac there. My guess is they're still there. I intend to let him know I got his.....invitation."

"And you're going? You're just going to waltz in there and say 'Here I am.' My head for MacLeod's?" Joe demanded. "You know it's a trap. This guy is hunting you."

"Surprise!" Methos said coldly, grabbing up his coat and stuffing the phone inside. "Isn't that what we were just talking about, Joe? You are absolutely prophetic."

Dawson hesitated, almost wanting to step back in the face of the ice cold fury in the Immortal's face. Instead he reached out and gripped the other man's arm. "Think about this, Adam. MacLeod may already be dead."

"Your point?"

It didn't matter whether MacLeod was alive or dead, Dawson realized. The man who had taken him was dead as well--it was only a matter of degrees. He was suddenly not sure he even knew the man in front of him.

"Don't make me close two journals and bury two friends," Dawson pleaded. "Think, man! You go barreling in there when this guy holds all the cards and you may as well slit your own throat--and MacLeod's."

"He'll keep Mac alive until he has me. That's how these games are played."

"And what are you going to do? You don't know anything about this guy!"

"I know enough. I know he's a coward. That pretty much tells me what I need to know."

"Such as?"

"No rules. He obviously knows who I am and what I look like, Joe. But he didn't come out and challenge me. He wants me at a disadvantage."

"And you're going to let him have what he wants? Are you out of your mind?"

Then Joe did step back, figuratively. The feral smile on Methos' face unlike either of the personas he had come to call friend. "I plan on giving him exactly what he wants--a shot at me. But he only gets one," Methos said softly.

Joe flinched under the cold green-gold gaze that was no longer... quite human. Or maybe just not sane--but, oh, so very controlled. He braced himself against the unease that gaze generated. "Do you want some back up?"

"Maybe, but don't come too soon. I will call," The older Immortal said and stared at Dawson for a long moment, something familiar breaking into the hard gaze. "He's not dead, Joe. I would know," Methos said

Joe believed him. Believed Methos somehow knew MacLeod was still alive. But the tone of the older Immortal's voice did nothing to reassure him. Nothing at all.

MacLeod woke to a sharp aching pain in his chest, duller aches in his shoulders and back and feeling oddly lightheaded. He kept his eyes closed until the worst of the pain had passed, then opened them with the sudden resurgence of memory.

"You heal rather more quickly than I anticipated."

MacLeod looked up, eyes focusing on the Immortal sitting so casually on the desk in front of him.

The Highlander said nothing, taking in his surroundings with a glance. He was in the office used by the security guards. Ignoring the pain in his chest he straightened and found his arms bound behind him around one of the narrow iron posts supporting the roof. His coat and sword lay on the desk next to Holly. His lips tightened as his gaze fell to the floor beyond Holly's dangling legs. A body. White starched shirt, black slacks. One of the security guards.

He swore, dropping his head back to glare at his captor. He tested the bonds at his wrists, recognizing the hard, cold steel of handcuffs. The dead guard's no doubt.

"By the time you break your hands to get free, it will be too late. I've already sent an invitation Methos won't be able to resist," Holly said and started laughing at his own cleverness, twisted amusement on his face as he smoothed his hands across his thick, fair hair.

MacLeod went still, something cold gripping his innards at the twisted, sadistic humor in the man's face. A draft moved across him, cooling the sweat on his face, at the back of his neck and he stopped for a brief moment acknowledging the moving air and what it meant. Holly had cut his hair.

As a trophy.

As bait.

The name moved through his mind with a silent plea of denial as he closed his eyes again. "This isn't how the Game is played," MacLeod grated out.

"The only way to play the Game is to play to win," Holly said and slid off the desk, crouching in front of the Highlander with the Scot's katana in his hand. He pressed the brightsteel edge against MacLeod's throat. "And don't think I believe that the oldest living Immortal will play by modern scruples. One of the Horsemen? Fighting fair? Not likely."

"How'd you know about that?" MacLeod asked, not for the first time wondering just how much of Methos' past still lingered to reach out and drag the older man back--and drag MacLeod with him, it seemed.

"Every business venture needs investment capital. Ruling the world seemed a good investment at the time. Kronos was a persuasive salesman," Holly said coolly, blue eyes narrowing a bit. "So, you see MacLeod, this isn't just about getting the power attached to an Immortal as old as Methos--you cost me a great deal of money, as well. What's between Methos and I is business. You and I? It's personal," he sneered and raked the edge of the Katana along the underside of MacLeod's chin. "A pity you learned too late never to mix personal pleasure with business. Of course, if you hadn't, I might never have found him. Tell me, Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, would it be worth it to save his head for later? Kronos intimated that Methos might have some value beyond his age--it's so hard to find really experienced lovers these days."

Silence was the only answer MacLeod could give. Holly's words were meant to hurt, to make him panic--add to his sense of helplessness.

"He's not a fool."

"No. But then neither am I. I'm a very patient man, MacLeod. And make no mistake, your death is as inevitable as his," he said and pulled the katana back, leaving a thin line of blood on the side of MacLeod's neck. He chuckled and laid the blade down.

Both men started when a muffled chirping sounded. It took Holly a moment to realize what it was, fishing through MacLeod's coat for the phone and opening it.

"Hello?" He said and went still, a frown marring his face. "I'm glad the courier's reliability is all that it was advertised to be. The point then. I have your friend. I want you. Come to the train yards near the docks--where your friend keeps his warehouse. Come alone. I'd say come unarmed but I doubt I could trust your answer. Traditional combat. You win, MacLeod is free. You lose, and it won't matter to you anymore. You have thirty minutes." And Holly closed the phone. "He's clever," Holly said, real admiration in his voice. "To contact me before I could contact him. I may have to rethink my plan."

"Which was?" MacLeod asked quietly.

"To take your head and meet him with your Quickening. But now....I think you are going need to be alive to get him to show himself at all. I don't much relish the thought of someone like Methos hunting me. However, I don't much relish the thought of you trying to interfere or warn him either," Holly said and produced the gun again.

MacLeod couldn't help but tense as the weapon was fired at his chest again.

A ten minute drive got Methos to the near abandoned rail and storage yards. A slow cruise around the edge of the bulk of the yards let him spot MacLeod's Thunderbird parked between four large warehouses. Another cruise let him spot a second vehicle on the back side of the same block. He parked at the far end of the yard, tucking his lease out of sight and walking toward the warehouses slowly.

He had no doubt that Duncan was in one of the buildings near his car, but he turned his attention to the smaller buildings flanking the abandoned rail line, checking each carefully until he found one that suited his needs. It was rusted, tin siding showing off it's abandonment starkly, the whole structure ready to collapse. Perfect.

It had two doors, the largest facing the block of warehouses. That one he secured, forcing hinges frozen with rust to close and securing the panes with a twisted piece of wire. Then set to work with more wire at the smaller door. Satisfied his tampering would hold he quit the building.

Then he went hunting.

It took him only a few minutes to tag the first Immortal, by chance as the boy moved to patrol around the buildings. Methos didn't even need to register the presence. The youth was blatantly carrying his blade. His eyes narrowed as he watched his quarry. Young. The signature almost non-existent. And nervous. "Damn," he cursed softly. There was no way this boy had engineered the events as they were unfolding. This one looked barely old enough to drive the car he'd spotted earlier.

Which meant there was more than one. Which meant that even if he took this child out, there was no guarantee MacLeod would survive. One on one combat became an elusive hope. He reset his plan...he had to find the other Immortal or Immortals. "When in doubt go for the obvious," he murmured and began pacing the boy, keeping just out of range and then sighed softly when he realized he'd found MacLeod.

"Some of us are just too stupid to live," he murmured with a nasty smile as the first boy led him to a second--this one very obviously standing guard over something. Methos grinned at the pair but his stomach was rolling. The second was young as well. Stronger, a little more of an edge to him but this was not the mastermind either. The first boy, the blonde, looked absolutely cowed. The second was looking absolutely bored to tears. A jadedness Methos noted warily.

Then he sought out the familiar caress/sound that identified the Highlander and found it, something releasing in his chest. He'd been fairly certain he would know if something permanent happened to MacLeod. It was gratifying to be right. His brief elation faded at a second, stronger presence, the combination of the four enough to give him a slight headache. He drew back again before they could notice him, their overlapping presences enough to obscure his own in the short term.

The odds were definitely stacked against him. Three to one and MacLeod in the middle. Time to see what game was really being played. He drew back further and pulled out the cell phone.

"I got your package," he said conversationally when the man picked up, smiling faintly. He had rattled the man. Good. And he listened. Thirty minutes. He smiled again and headed for his car. Stopping when he heard the shot. The smile faded as he waited. And waited. Felt the wildness burning in his blood again, the rage. He couldn't make it back in time to stop anything. His eyes closed, fingers gripping his sword tightly, arm twitching as if already tearing into a victim.

The moments passed in a silent, aching eternity and he sought and found a faint familiar murmur.

No Quickening. He started breathing again and turned back. New rules. Joe had been right. His antagonist was a dead man. If MacLeod died, the death would be as slow as five thousand years of bloody history could make it.

The man emerged without MacLeod. Methos didn't know the older Immortal--had never seen him before but he speculated as he followed the trio back to the second car.

"Not nice," he whispered as the older man pulled out a rifle and handed it to the darker of the two young Immortals. The younger blond got the pistol and they split up. The rifleman went high, and Methos followed, the other two heading back to the warehouse.

Methos waited until the rifleman started climbing the narrow ladder to the roof. Awkward position with his sword and the rifle slung across his back. He reacted to the presence of another Immortal with a startled cry, turning and trying to bring the gun up.

"Not enough hands, boy," Methos snarled, grabbing his ankle and yanking him downward. The boy lost his grip, tumbling in a heap at Methos' feet. The older Immortal stepped on his arm, sword, braced against the slim throat. "When you start breathing again, you make sure you find clean air. I hear Oakland is nice this time of year," Methos said with a feral smile, ignoring the start of fear in the dark eyes before he drove his sword point into the boy's chest, holding there until he died.

His sword was up before he realized it, poised over the boy's throat and he stilled himself with effort. To take the boy's head would bring the Quickening. Not something he needed at the moment. A disaster if he let it happened, alerting the others to his presence and leaving him vulnerable.

Not to mention a death sentence for the Highlander.

He took a deep breath, quieting the wildness again, driving it back and down. Steadying his hands, he wiped the blade on the boy's shirt and tucked his blade back into his coat before dragging the body into the relatively out of sight inset frame of one of the huge roll-up doors. Victim dispensed with, he picked up the rifle and checked the chamber; emptying all shells but one into his pocket and then climbed the ladder himself.

The vantage was good and allowed him to keep some distance as the blonde began walking back toward the car, leaving the older man in front of the door of the guard office. Tracking the youth along the roof of the building, Methos waited until he was over the ladder again, sighted along the barrel and squeezed the trigger.

The boy hit the ground before the retort of the rifle had faded.

Leaving the rifle on the roof Methos all but slid down the metal ladder, ignoring the scoring the sharp edges gave his palms. He could feel the older Immortal coming and turned as he hit the ground, sword already up as the man rounded the edge of the building.

"Surprise!" Methos sneered and then was running as the man darted back to the front, catching up to him as he neared the door. MacLeod's presence thrummed against him as he cut the man off. Shoulder and arm slamming into the man knocking him off balance and he stumbled backward, regaining his feet and drawing his sword. "Surely you don't plan to disappear before we were properly introduced?" Methos said, easy grin on his face, eyes narrowed as he brought his blade up. He gave the man no time to answer but attacked.

His unexpected appearance threw his opponent off balance as he had intended. Kept him on the defensive. Methos' smile deepened as the man's eyes kept darting to the sides looking for his students.

Despite being caught off guard, the man was good. Recapturing his confidence as he realized there would be no assistance, no easy kill.

Methos never let the smile leave his face when his opponent began pressing attacks of his own. The man was very good. Methos could admire his skill and even wonder what would make a swordsman of his caliber resort to treachery.

And got his answer when they drew close, blades locked, the blue eyes boring into Methos' were a little wild, a hand clutched at his shoulder, then his neck, dragging his head forward. Hard lips pressed against his in an obscene kiss before the man shoved him backward laughing. Holly was just barely sane.

"So, you're not a myth after all," The man said. "Certainly not larger than life. Kronos painted you as much more of a threat. Perhaps I should have taken you and called out MacLeod?" he taunted.

"A friend of Kronos'? Gods, I should have known. You should pick your friends more wisely," Methos said moving sideways as the man headed for the warehouse again. Methos smiled faintly. Then he danced back as his opponent suddenly lunged in. The thrust was simple one and Methos parried it without effort, then twisted to fend off a counterswing as the man came from the side.

"Or Kronos should have, " the man said with a laugh, then bowed, cheeks flushed, blue eyes bright. "Abraham Holly. I take it my boys will be joining us soon?"

They would. Methos did not have quite the advantage he'd hoped for. Mercy and expediency had cut his edge. But there was still something wrong with the whole scenario. Holly was an excellent fighter. The use of the two younger men wrenched at some deeply suppressed part of Methos' soul. But there were other advantages to be had and he needed to get Holly where his protégé's couldn't use their numbers to any further advantage.

"Three to one? Now, how did I miss that little variation in the rule book?" Methos asked with a sneer, scanning the space for his options and began drawing Holly away from the warehouse, feinting in and drawing blood. "Those children of yours not a big enough challenge?"

"They have their uses. Their benefits. You would understand that, wouldn't you, Methos? MacLeod must seem like a mere child to you." The tone was openly insidious, sly and leering. "Perhaps after I finish with you, I shall keep him a bit?"

Methos started laughing, a deep laugh erupting from his stomach as he took a few steps back, turning his back on the man for a moment. "Five thousand years; the rise and fall of Greece and Rome; and you threaten me with a violation of MacLeod's body? Abe, I have half a mind to quit the field just to see you try!" His laughter was genuine, but the edge underneath was sharp. "Did you plan to rape him in front of me? Throw your 'boys' at me and see if I submit? You're an idiot. You want a try for my ancient head, feel free, but don't insult me with hackneyed threats. I'm long past the time and age where such threats do more than bore me to tears."

"So arrogant," Holly said, face flushed, the laughter fading. "Yet you keep backing away? Luring me from your lover, old one? He's dead already, Methos, and nothing you do will save him."

"Dead is better than having to suffer your bad melodrama," Methos murmured, nearly to the door. "Come on, Holly. You wanted me. Take your best shot. You're not bad with a blade. You might even win, one on one. Just think of it, Abe. Five thousand years.... The absolute power of the Horseman...you'll get all of it," Methos said, a vicious smile settling on his aquiline features.

"Weaving spells, Methos? Tempting me with your own bait? Now who's being trite and obvious?"

"The only thing obvious here is that someone should have taken your head long ago," Methos said sharply. "Step into my parlor, Abe," he invited, gesturing at the interior of the shed. "No spectators. One exit.... how can you pass it up?" He asked and stepped backwards into the building.

And Holly followed, eyes narrowed as Methos backed away more and stood in the center, waiting.

Here fishy, fishy, fishy, Methos thought as Holly paused, checking out the interior before fully committing his body to entering. They faced off again and steel rang hollowly in the enclosed space, singing off the tin in a loud discord of sound. 

Holly smiled as Methos felt the faint slide of another Immortal's presence drawing close. A second not far behind and even weaker. Holly backed off, body tensed and the smile returning.

"It seems our little soiree is about to have spectators after all," Holly said with a grin. "Shall we wait?"

"Oh, please. My day wouldn't be complete without being introduced to your students," Methos said blandly. The first of Holly's students entered as the oldest Immortal stripped off his coat casually. The dark-haired one came in, looking pissed off and a little wary. A few moments later the younger, blonde one entered looking more frightened than wary. A fact Methos noted with distracted interest.

Methos said easily. "So, do we do this one at a time or all together?" Both the younger men moved in, blades coming up although the youngest looked uncertainly at Holly.

Methos shook his head. "Why am I not surprised?" He said and moved to drape his coat over a twisted girder. "The only one missing is MacLeod."

"I don't think he'll be joining us," Holly said. "Although I could send one of my boys after him? My boys--I'm forgetting my manners. Meet my sons': Vincent Franzia." The darker of the two grinned wolfishly. "And Martin Grady," he added and Methos eyed the darker one, noting the blank cold expression, the ease at which the slim body was held. Have to watch that one, he noted to himself. If he got the chance.

"Can't say it's a pleasure," Methos said. "But now that we're all here...." He snagged the thin wire above his head before Holly could react and the door slammed shut, metal grating against itself. Grady went to it but it remained stuck fast. "Sorry, boy. It'll only open from the outside now. I've some friends of my own on the way." Methos said and reached into his coat for a second blade, the one that so disturbed MacLeod. There's a reason I carry two, Mac. He'd told the Highlander but MacLeod hadn't wanted to hear the explanation. Duncan MacLeod could never be participant to a challenge that fell outside the rules. Outside of honor.

Somehow, Methos didn't think MacLeod would disapprove too energetically if he were here.

Which raised his own questions and fears. Now way for him to know what Holly might have done and no way for Methos to find out unless he won.

Which made the thought itself the last distraction Methos could afford.

Grady was less bold than his companions, hanging back as Holly moved in to flank Methos, Franzia choosing the opposite side. But the oldest Immortal hadn't survived five thousand years without some extensive study in strategy. He lunged toward Franzia, sending the younger man skittering back, a twist and his sword slid across Grady's forearm. It was meant to startle, not disarm, and then his attention was on the strongest of them.

Deliberately so. Holly was the primary threat if only because of the hold he had on his protégés. Taking Holly out was his primary concern. The other two he could deal with at leisure. If he got that far. He needed time. Time for Joe to show up or MacLeod to secure his own release--or if the fates smiled on him this once, he might be able to take all three of them out.

The second blade gave him the upper hand again, Holly swearing as he realized their previous fight outside had been but a spar... a test. The humor was gone from the older Immortal's face as well as any hesitancy. The two younger men seemed uncertain how to participate or if to interfere and Methos used that hesitation to his advantage. He parried and turned to engage Grady again, the blonde giving a startled yelp when he found himself between Methos and Holly, making the younger Immortal move to avoid the furious attack, his inadequacy and panic providing both distraction and shield. Neither Holly nor Franzia had space enough to move past him with out being cut or laying themselves open to one or the other of Methos' blades.

Holly tried though, shifting around his student to angle in and Methos lunged, driving Grady backward, almost onto Holly's blade. The younger man yelped, backed off and suddenly Methos had both Franzia and Holly at him again, Grady drawing back.

It had been a good strategy while it lasted, but it had cost him, as had the earlier fight. Strength, stamina, and Franzia and Holly were good. Not as good as he was one on one, but together.....just possibly.

A long standing acquaintance with pain gave Methos an edge. He could take the pain of the wounds he surrendered to get within their guards. He could ignore them to a point, his opponents not possessing his resistance. Holly screamed with pain as Methos managed to drive the shorter sword through his side, but he lost the blade in the doing as the older man staggered back.

And lost the use of his right arm when Franzia managed to get close enough to take him cleanly through the shoulder, only the quick wrench of his body keeping the blade from his heart.

He didn't lose his blade though and Franzia actually looked nervous when Methos shifted the sword to his left hand, held no less competently.

"Grady, help him! Finish him! Take his head and you'll be one of the most powerful Immortals on the planet!" Holly snarled, struggling to his feet.

"He doesn't know that, boy," Methos rasped out. His attention was on Franzia who was still watching him uncertainly. "If one of you takes my head its anyone's guess who gets my Quickening. My odds are that Holly will no matter who does it." He lied, anything to throw them off. "He's the strongest of you."

"Don't listen. If you take his head, you get his strength," Holly said urgently.

"And he's been so honest with you until now," Methos sneered. "Did he tell you that if you fight outside the rules, other Immortals will hunt you down like rabid dogs? Did he tell you the rules at all?" Methos was stalling. He needed time. The pain he could handle but the blood loss was wearing on him. Minutes. He needed minutes for the healing to kick in, to refresh lungs straining for oxygen, a brain needing blood.

"Maybe it won't matter," Franzia said.

And came at him hard. And fast. Methos backed away, meeting the thrusts but only in defense. Grady was following, uncertain, and Holly was on his feet and steady. Methos retreating until his back was against the wall.

He couldn't take them all on again. He wasn't sure he could take two of them.

But one. He stopped as Franzia lunged in. It was a trick he'd used before. He'd only get to use it once and it was going to hurt.

He let Franzia's blade slide under his guard, felt the steel slide between his ribs and out, Arm raised as the boy drove close, still gripping the hilt of his sword. And let his own blade be levered upward, slipping between the third and fourth cervical vertebra, heard Franzia gurgle his surprise. His dark eyes met Methos' in shock as the older Immortal jerked the blade to the side. Awkward angle, body pulling against the blade in his side but the muscles gave, the bone, as the body convulsed and Methos turned his head to avoid the hot rush of blood against his neck and chest. He didn't completely sever the boy's head. A Quickening now would leave him open to Holly. To Grady. But such an injury would take time, a long time, to heal.

Franzia dropped, death grip on the blade jerking it partially free and Methos bit back the cry of pain before reaching down to finish pulling it out. He needed the wall for support now but he had two blades again. He lifted his head, gold-green eyes utterly impassive, expression cold as he regarded Holly. Grady was of no consequence. The boy looked sick and then he was. Vomiting out his fear before he turned and ran, fighting with the door to get out.

"I like these odds better," Methos said quietly, praying Holly would continue to hesitate because he wasn't sure he could move. If he stayed still he might be able to retain consciousness but if he moved, the agony burning through him might end his resolve, his determination. His life.

But Holly obviously didn't listen to prayer. Methos managed to get fend him off for four blows before his legs gave way. Got in one thrust along the man's thigh before Holly had him on his knees, his blade poised.

The boy at the door let out a frightened wail and the presence of another Immortal sang through them.

"I guess I didn't need you after all, Grady," Holly said and let the steel hiss along Methos' throat, and Methos didn't even care. He knew this Immortal and it wasn't Grady. His entire life coming to one sharp edged, triumphant point with the knowledge that Holly would not survive his death.

For the second time in as many hours, Duncan MacLeod woke to a pain in his chest, but memory returned faster. He was still in the office. Coat and sword still on the desk--nothing had changed except he was alone.

And he could hear the muffled sound of steel ringing against steel close by. That and the unquestionably familiar Immortal signature tangled around a second.

Three of them. MacLeod knew Methos was a better swordsman than he might let on, but three? Even if he managed to pull it off, that many Quickenings would likely tear the older Immortal apart. It had nearly done so to MacLeod once and Methos took the sublimations of power much less easily than the Highlander.

And if they didn't rip his mind apart entirely, they might just leave him unrecognizable. Or dead.

It took four tries to break the bones of his left hand sufficiently to get them free of the steel handcuffs, each attempt punctuated by a short grunt and cut off scream of pain....urgency the only thing keeping him conscious. He couldn't hear the clash of steel any longer and he could only barely feel Methos' presence.

Cradling the injured hand, fighting down a wave of pain as the joints reset themselves, MacLeod reached for the katana, tucking the blade under his arm and snatching up the phone, a silent prayer of thanks winging heavenward when Joe answered the phone, as he shoved his way out of the office.

"Joe, we're at the warehouse. There are three of them and he's taking them on alone," MacLeod said and then dropped the phone to trade it for his sword. No time for any explanations or directions as he followed the sounds...the signature, knowing without knowing how that the familiar sense of presence was stressed, drawn thin.

His hand was almost functional when he reached the door, pulling at the wired hinge awkwardly and shoving the door aside to find himself face to face with the blonde child. The eyes went wide, seeing a corpse, a ghost... stark, sheer terror and confusion in the face as MacLeod shoved him aside, hand reaching for the sword and pulling it free from lax fingers.

And then the boy was forgotten as he saw Methos go down. Time slowed, telescoped, all his attention centered on the bloodied form, the steel pressed against the slender throat, the face frozen in his minds eye with that terrible smile, at once joyous and resigned.

And Holly with bloodlust burning in his blue eyes, claiming a victory he had no right to, so caught up in being the one to claim Methos' head, he had no idea MacLeod was even close.

"I guess I didn't need you after all, Grady," Holly sneered, blade easing into the flesh of the older Immortal's neck

"Then why'd you bring him?" MacLeod demanded coldly, closing the distance.

The familiar Scottish burr was music to Methos as he let his gaze slide over MacLeod for a brief moment. The Highlander looked like hell, the shirt punctured by two wounds, bloodied, left hand held uselessly and he was incredibly pissed off.

"You can't interfere!" Holly snarled then swore as the thin edge of the katana slid under his chin.

"But you can?" MacLeod said icily, barely reigning his anger in. Every instinct begging to let the katana continue its route. "There's a boy there with his head half cut off. I'd say you interfered in something. Now, back off and let them finish it. Or I will."

MacLeod's blade slipped sideways, pressing Holly back, his eyes watching Grady cautiously. The younger man hovered just to the left, plastered next to the now open door, afraid to move. MacLeod a barrier between he and Methos.

His blade never leaving Holly's throat Duncan reached down, wincing as he felt Methos' blood slicked hand close over his healing one, but he pulled the older Immortal to his feet. He dared spare only a glance at Methos, gaze shifting between Holly and Grady. He could feel the slender body shaking. Amazed the older Immortal could even get to his feet. There was blood all over him, his face was gray with pain, blood loss, and fatigue.

Methos steadied himself against Duncan as he bent to pick up his sword and nearly fell again.

"Hell of a rescue. You want to finish that?" Duncan asked him, glancing down at the body at Methos' feet briefly, voice hard but the dark eyes watched the older Immortal anxiously when they shifted back to the hazel ones.

Methos nodded slowly, not trusting himself to speak. Bad enough MacLeod had been dragged into this because of him. Bad enough for MacLeod to have to witness this again, without the other spectators.

Because Franzia was going to be hard to take. Methos had seen it earlier. This was no nice momma's boy at his feet.

"You step back with me, Holly," MacLeod said, icily. "We'll flip to see who gets to take you on--fairly. Boy," He snapped at Grady. "You find yourself another teacher."

And Grady ran. Sufficient time later for Methos to question the wisdom of letting the boy go. His blade was slick in his hand but Franzia hadn't moved. Hand still clutching his side he swung. Finishing what he had started, feeling the shock run through his arm as the blade hit concrete on the other side of Franzia's neck.

And he dropped it. Pulling his arms tightly across his chest and dropping to his knees carefully before the first pull of the Quickening came.

MacLeod held the blade tightly against Holly's throat, fighting the urge to take the man's head then and there without benefit of challenge. But he couldn't, even knowing what he had done. He would give him the grace of a fair fight either with Methos or himself. But not now.

He swallowed convulsively as the Quickening came, watching it lance through the tightly held body in front of him. There was so little in the warehouse for the energies arcing from the dead body to ground on. Steel. Concrete.


The first scream ripped from the slender throat tore through MacLeod like a lance and he felt Holly tense, realizing his blade was pressing deeper into the man's throat in reaction. He eased back, torn between his need to keep this man under control and to be there for Methos when it was over.

It took him two seconds to figure it out. "Sorry, about this," he muttered darkly into Holly's ear and drew the katana back sharply, plunging it into the man's back and through his heart. It wasn't fair. It wasn't honorable. But then neither was three to one.

He left the blade buried in Holly's body and crouched down to wait. Pain forgotten, honor abandoned as he watched the slender form contort under the assault of Franzia' life force. He had come within a hairsbreadth of losing Methos to Holly, but it might have been kinder than making him suffer this. It was a brief flash of thought with no weight, but MacLeod felt his own insides twist as the hollow sobs began echoing.

It was drawing to a close. The sobs were cut by a harsh intake of air, sound sharp as if the air itself hurt to breathe. Methos was sprawled on the floor, body wracked by the convulsive shudders tearing through him. Oblivious to the hiss of steam rising from the wet floor as the tiny lightnings struck, blossoming up from the body to the roof and then down again in one long frenetic line of energy that pinned Methos to the floor before skittering away to die.

The last burst arced the spine of the man on the ground, chest raised and hands out, fists clenched as the dark head fell back. Then it released him and the body was still, the warehouse silent.

MacLeod waited a few seconds and then rose, coming to the side of the unmoving form in five long strides and kneeling. His hand slid under the dark head, dark eyes scanning the lax face anxiously as he lifted him, supporting his neck and drawing him upward. Quickening or no, healing or no, Methos looked a wreck, the sweater torn to expose the long healing line of the puncture through his side. Fabric sodden with blood. His. The dead Immortal's. The sharp planed features starkly outlined by the pale skin, accented by the red brown stains.

The body stirred, drew a sharp breath as the hazel eyes flashed open, focused on the face above his and closed again, second breath echoed by a sob as the body began to contract in on itself.

MacLeod enfolded him, drawing him close. Never questioning why it had become important that he be there for Methos when he could. For this. Witness for the grief and anguish. Both exchanged at some point for the cold carelessness Methos had left in his past.

This was the price. This reaction that MacLeod understood but did not experience to such a degree. Four hundred years balanced against five thousand. A hundred heads balanced against three times that number.

The bloodied arms crept around his neck, face obscured in his shoulder as Duncan held him. Unable to do anything at the present to ease the tautness in the long frame. Not here. This need both more and less than the other more physical demands the Quickening brought to Methos. And his own need to hold the tight body rising up with a sob of his own. Close. Too close. The years that should have stretched ahead of them collapsing under this one moment. MacLeod recognizing with a starkness he hadn't before that this was what their lives would likely be. One moment to one moment. No future, just the present.

And realized he was willing to trade that future for this moment. To feel Methos' body in his arms, to share the tears , the laughter, and the pain.

Because this was pain. Not need. They had been together long enough for Duncan to know the difference. Knew how the Quickenings hastened the healing, but brought the pain to the forefront. And Methos was exhausted. And angry, his whole body shaking from the combination.

"Where is Holly?" Methos grated out.

"Dead. For now. Easy. There's no battle to be fought right this second," Duncan murmured as the shudders subsided.

"Oh, yes, there is," Methos snarled, voice hard and cold as he pulled away from MacLeod's embrace. "You should understand justice, Mac. Holly is long overdue for his."

"Methos, let this die first." MacLeod said evenly, disliking the savagery in the tone, in the expression twisting the familiar face. Methos rolled away, coming up with his sword. Tensing as Duncan gripped his arm.

"Don't interfere, Mac," Methos said, barely able to keep the anger in check. He was shaking with it.

"I need you to think! You can't fight Holly until he revives and you can't fight him like this at all," MacLeod said, his own anger rising. Not at Methos but for him.

"Oh no? You want fair play, Mac? You go find the other one. Grady. You find him and you teach him what the Game is about. Because Holly didn't."

"What do you mean?" MacLeod asked and Methos jerked away, taking the few steps necessary to reach Holly's body. He kicked the man over and withdrew the katana. Holding it blindly out to the Highlander.

"He brought them over, Mac. He found them when they were children, pre-Immortals he raised like pets then killed them and explained nothing except the power." The hazel eyes met MacLeod's with a desolate fury. "He's had Franzia since he was nine. He has a.... weakness..... for young boys," Methos said, his voice dropping to a whisper. "When he's done with them, they will do anything for him."

Cold gripped at MacLeod's gut as he realized what Methos was saying. Heard an ancient fear well up in the older Immortal.

And saw him raise his sword as Holly stirred.

MacLeod lunged for him as he realized what Methos was about to do but he was a fraction of a second too late as the steel bit through the man's neck.

"Get out, Mac," Methos murmured. "Find the boy. I'll find you when I can."

"What have you done?" MacLeod asked, but he knew. He could see it the gold-green eyes, barely tinged with regret. "You could have fought him. I would have!"

"I already fought him, Mac, remember? I lost," Methos said and tensed as the ground crackled below him. "Get out, Mac. Please. Find the boy. You can't help me with this one and you probably shouldn't be here when it's done. Please?" The last was the voice of his lover, the gaze asking for nothing but his acceptance.

Then it was gone as the Quickening began, Methos swaying at the first stroke.

MacLeod backed away, feeling like he was betraying something. Or that Methos had. He closed his eyes and ears to the soft moan that followed and turned away. Seeking the presence still lurking in the train yard, unable to stop the fall of tears from his eyes as the moan turned to a groan then to cry.

And he stopped at the inhuman keening the cry turned into. A wind lifted his hair, the steady current of static electricity making his skin crawl.

I lost.

"No." It was a whisper as he turned back, body already moving toward the center of the whirling lines of power, Methos in the center, the sword raised, point and blade tucked against the slender throat.

I lost.

He didn't even hesitate, diving into the growing maelstrom to grip the hands before they could mete out a justice. Methos had been carrying Franzia's personality when he made that judgment as well as his own. Franzia who would have alternately hated and loved Holly for what he'd done. And then to take Holly as well. Holly who had held Methos' life at the end of his blade until MacLeod interfered.

MacLeod had seen personalities surge through Methos after a Quickening before. Waited until the older Immortal had sorted them, laid them to rest, closed them away.

These had come too fast. Too close together. His chest tightened as he recalled his own reaction when Felicia Martins and her two students had come for him--the rapid succession of Quickenings, how they had ripped through him, scattering his thoughts, tearing at his mind and sanity.

"Nononono!" MacLeod's scream joined with Methos' as the world crashed down around them, hands joined on the hilt of Methos' sword, MacLeod desperately trying to press the blade down, away from the vulnerable throat. The old warehouse threatened to give way under the second assault, tin panels falling like stone to clang onto the concrete. The girders creaked, sending guide wires snapping into the air.

And Holly's Quickening hovered as if uncertain which of the two to find a home in, deciding on both and neither. It was not the quick erratic lances of energy as with Franzia. Holly remained steady on his course. Solid. Sick. His depravity a tangible thing.

Duncan felt it like bile in his throat, a crawling slime on his skin as the corruption of the man Methos had killed washed over him. But it was separate for him as he took it in, felt his blood burn as the energy ground through him, hands still locked with Methos'

Or so he thought. When he could think. When he could see. He had stopped the blade from severing the narrow confines of the slim throat but not the thrust itself. Methos had gone to his knees in front of him, his own sword driven through his throat, impaling him, steel acting as a lightning rod for the dying energies of the Quickening. The pale face contorted in agony as that force burned through him.

MacLeod's scream was lost to the last of it as he jerked the blade free and cast it aside, reaching for the twisted body as it fell. Dead still. Again. The sweet caress/murmur of Methos' presence subdued, no longer burning bright.

And the wound in his throat still bled. Not healing. His skin so cold, it was like death itself. 

"Oh, God, Methos," MacLeod moaned gathering the limp body up in his arms. "What have you done?"

Martin Grady stopped running when the pain in his side blinded him with its sharpness. He had never been in a fight before. Not like that one. Doubts he'd harbored coming to the surface when he realized Abraham meant for all three of them to fight the other Immortal. It was supposed to be his first Quickening. Vinnie had a dozen already and God only knew how many heads Abraham had taken. Martin didn't like to think about it.

He had thought the other Immortal would kill him. He had come after him first and Martin didn't understand. And then Abraham had come in and nearly killed Martin by accident.

He didn't want to die. He had spent most of his life thinking he did, years when he had suffered anything Abraham did to him. Until the opportunity came, when Abraham had shot him. The bullet had hit him in the heart and he had a few seconds to realize he wasn't ready to die.

He wanted to live. Anything was worth that goal.

At least he had thought that until the older Immortal...Methos...had nearly taken Vinnie's head. Watching him take the injuries, to fight through them....his desire to survive burning brighter than anything Martin had ever witnessed. He wanted to be like that man.

But he had broken rules he didn't know existed--other Immortals would be hunting him. Methos had said so. He would need strength and power to survive.

And there was only one way to gain that power. He would have to challenge him. Before, he had been afraid. Now he was afraid not to. Abraham had always said Martin was a good swordsman except he didn't have the passion to win.

He did now. Time to find out if Abraham had been capable of telling the truth about anything. But first, he had to make sure that Methos' friend, the one name MacLeod, didn't interfere and he had to do it quickly. If he played it right, he might get both their Quickenings as Abraham had intended.

He darted away from the side of the building toward Abraham's car. Had he seen his face at that moment he might have been surprised to see how much the greedy expression on his face mirrored that of the man who he had always feared as a monster. And he would have been further surprised to discover that the only decision he'd ever made for himself in his short life would be the wrong one.

For long moments MacLeod do nothing but cradle his friend's body in his arms. The shock too great, the aftermath of the shared Quickening still lingering. It had been harsh, and vile, rousing things in MacLeod he'd hope dead and buried. But they weren't. Holly's sickness had pulled them forth again and he battled them back, denied them until he was shaking, unconsciously pulling Methos toward him like a shield..

Methos was still breathing but it was a harsh, wet sound, a tiny froth of crimson at his throat. He was literally drowning in his own blood. Pressure wouldn't stop it, only healing could and it was progressing far too slowly.

Pressing his hand against the wound, the Highlander shifted, unsure if he should try to get them away or wait. Methos shuddered in his arms, breath a hoarse gurgle of sound before it died away and the body went limper still.

And the faint caress of Methos' presence dimmed further as the life bled out of him.

How long had it taken Kalas to heal? MacLeod had never considered it before, never thought of it. The wound itself had still been visible when Duncan took his head. How many times had Kalas died before the healing finally sealed the wound?

Duncan had taken throat wounds before. To his great relief and amazement they had closed with the onset of a Quickening. The steel imbedded in his friend's throat had apparently thwarted that massive effort. Duncan's share in the Quickening had probably thwarted it more.

Guilt washed over him as he lifted the body. He couldn't deal with this alone. He stilled the panic in his mind, seeking resources. Joe knew where they were, should know if he'd been able to make any sense of the short frenzied plea MacLeod had made. He settled Methos closer to his chest, moving toward the door. And stopped as the faint murmur/feel slid over him.

Grady Martin stepped into the warehouse, his sword in one hand... Holly's gun in the other.

"Don't do this," MacLeod said coming up short, eyes sliding to the gun. "This isn't how it was meant to be."

"Doesn't matter. Winning matters. Living matters. With his head and yours, I might get to do both." Martin said.

"It's not all that matters," MacLeod said desperately. "Grady, what Holly did...what he taught you ...it was wrong. It doesn't have to be that way. Let me teach you..."

"It doesn't have to be what way, MacLeod? The fighting? The knowing that others of our kind will hunt us for no other reason than because only one can rule the world?" He moved in closer stopping when he was within a swords length.

Duncan studied the boy. And he was a boy. Younger than Richie. Possibly no more than sixteen. A child. The fact that he hadn't fired yet gave MacLeod some hope. If he could reach him... "No. It doesn't have to be about fear. It can be about more. It can be about living. About friends. About love."

"The only love I've ever known was what Abraham taught me," Grady said icily. "Love. Power. Its all the same isn't it? Vinnie was my friend but he would have killed me to get to your friend. To you. I knew what Abraham was doing. This isn't the first time he's taken us hunting..."

"If you hunt, you will be hunted," MacLeod said.

"If I'm stronger, it won't matter, will it?" Grady said and raised the gun.

MacLeod flinched automatically, cradling Methos' body tightly against his own, felt the bullet rip through Methos' side and into his chest. He went down with the air driven out of him, unable to cushion his fall or his lover's. He fought for consciousness, saw Grady's booted feet and looked upward, the blade raised and ready to descend on Methos' unprotected neck.

Adrenaline surged through him, a primal anguish driving him upward to catch the arm. The swing. Stopping the blade and Grady looked at him with terror in his eyes.

MacLeod stopped thinking. Whatever compassion he might have had for the boy vanishing under the sheer rage that burned through him. He knew its source.

You can control it as long as you have the will, the familiar accented baritone haunted him, the sweet pressure of a hand against his chest reminding him of who he was.

But it did not avert his intent. Grady had only a brief moment to accept his fate and MacLeod saw it in the boy's eyes. The recognition coming too late of what the Highlander had meant when he said there was more than fear that could be had. It might have been a peace of sorts as MacLeod yanked the blade free and finished the movement with a smooth stroke, the body dropping before the Highlander had finished turning.

There was no triumph in his soul as he dropped to his knees again. There was barely regret, only a pain he couldn't deny and grief that it took so little to make so much go wrong. Methos' presence fluttered against him as he gathered him in his arms again and held him. Willing that some small good might come out of the boy's death.

Adrenaline kept him conscious as the energies began to rise, the wound in his chest closing just as he started to acknowledge the pain. There was not much force behind the Quickening and MacLeod nearly wept at the innocence of it. Save those last few minutes there had been nothing evil in the boy. In Martin. But his very innocence was almost like a forgiveness in itself. And an absolution in its result.

It faded, the energies draining back as gently as water, sourcing itself in the earth. The passing of one more innocent barely noticed by the earth's ancient memory.

But one ancient would remember. The voice was harsh, rasping, the touch on his cheek, faltering and weak but directed.


MacLeod looked down to find a pair of weary gold-green eyes fixed on his in confusion and pain, but cognizant. The blood had stopped seeping from the throat but the wound was still there, fading into a faint line and then stopping, healed but not erased.

"It's over. You'll be okay....." MacLeod murmured and Methos seemed to accept it, closing his eyes as he swallowed, a brief flash of pain washing over the pale face. But MacLeod could feel him, his presence gaining strength slowly but steadily.

The Highlander couldn't move. Not now. Not at the moment and he did not. Merely held his brother securely until the other anchor in his life could help guide them home.

Part Three:

Ten days later

Something in the scent of deep woods pines overlaid by the rich aroma of coffee was a natural sedative. It he could bottle it, he'd make a mint in the aromatherapy market. The thought was errant and unimportant but MacLeod let it slide through him. For now he preferred to avoid thoughts that ran too deep, most of his energy focused on feelings that ran deeper.

The cabin he'd built decades ago invited the slow pace of his thoughts and feelings...always had. A refuge on Holy Ground, a retreat he'd used before and would use again. He needed it. Stresses draining from him and into the waters of the lake.

The coffee pot gave one last gurgle and he turned back to a more domestic mien, pouring two cups and setting them on the tray he'd already fixed. Not quite breakfast in bed....more like dinner, darling, won't you please eat? His houseguest was not adapting well to the pampering MacLeod offered and he was heartened by the bad temper. Methos annoyed was much better company than the silent, passive, exhausted man he'd been watching over for the past week.

By the time MacLeod returned with the food, Methos had fallen asleep again. He set the tray down quietly, settling into the chair beside the bed to watch his lover sleep, feeling calm and centered. His gaze slipped away from the sleeping figure to the window overlooking the lake. Dusk was beginning to fall, bathing the horizon in the first shadings of rose and gold.

He barely recalled now the actual events following Martin Grady's Quickening. He had waited until Joe found them. He vaguely remembered being unwilling to let Joe and the people he'd brought with him take Methos from his arms. His next coherent thought had been at the loft. Seeing Anne there, her presence eliciting another dull ache of regret. Joe had called her. Another person in his life, like Joe, who he needed and used to the limits of friendship and beyond. What he felt for Anne had not dulled, but it had been tempered and she knew it.

MacLeod's broken account of what had happened prompted Joe to call Anne Lindsay. The circumstances too close to MacLeod's own brush with multiple successive Quickenings not to summon the nearest thing to an expert they could find. Only when MacLeod had succumbed, it had been Methos who pulled him out of it.

But this was not the same. MacLeod had not tried to take his own life.

It had taken nearly a day for Methos to regain any kind of coherency at all, and it punctuated by some of the most horrific nightmares MacLeod never wanted to live through again. And he had. Those last two shared Quickenings had pushed the strength of what he and Methos had already exchanged with the deaths of Kronos and Silas. What he had only been able to imagine Methos living through every time he took a head had become brutally real as the older Immortal fought to subdue the three intertwined personalities into his own. Anne's massive doses of sedatives the only way either of them got any rest for days.

The nightmares had mercifully faded as Methos healed. A slower process than any of them could have imagined. What Anne found after a day or two was scar tissue. Not enough to suffocate him but enough to make eating a near impossibility, fluids painful to swallow, and reduce the clear baritone to a rough whisper. But the tissue mass was reducing, slowly. Anne gave it about ten days to clear away entirely--or as far as it would go....and none of them dared speculate on why Methos was taking so long to heal in the first place.

In the end the only thing Anne could prescribe was extended rest. Preferably someplace where any further encounters with Immortal head-hunters could be avoided MacLeod had moved himself and Methos to his lake cabin, the peace of Holy Ground and the solitude exactly what the lady doctor ordered. And then her expertise ran out. The older Immortal would either continue to heal or the process would stop somewhere along the way. Only time could produce the answers none of them dared voice.

Anne had guessed Methos might sleep a great deal, so the older Immortal's tendency to drop into slumber did not unduly alarm MacLeod. The scar tissue had faded markedly and Methos' voice had returned to normal, only growing hoarse again when he was extremely fatigued. But he had grown even thinner, distilled down to the basics of flesh and muscle, adding to the youthful appearance that lay on his undisturbed face. He hadn't had a hair cut in weeks, the dark silk starting to curl around his ears, at his neck, further softening the sharp planes of his cheeks and jaw. But his time outside, on the dock or walking along the lake edge had deepened his skin color, not to MacLeod's bronze, but brought a flush of life to the pale flesh.

He stirred, stretching in his sleep, gradually becoming aware of MacLeod's presence, opening the bright gold-green eyes to smile at his nursemaid indulgently. "You've missed your calling, Mac. You should have been a nanny."

MacLeod grinned. "A dozen small children would be easier to take care of than you. Have I told you what a lousy patient you are?" He asked as Methos sat up, arranging the pillows to his liking and leaning back with his knees drawn up under the blankets so MacLeod could sit on the bed.

"Frequently," Methos said glancing at the tray without much interest.

"You need to eat."

"Yes, Mother," Methos muttered snagging a piece of the fruit the Highlander had sliced up. Duncan watched him, checking for any signs of difficulty or pain when he swallowed, eyes unconsciously going to the thin scar at the base of his throat, twin to the one at the back of his neck, watching the paler skin move as the muscles worked.

"You're going to make me self-conscious," Methos said softly and MacLeod lifted his dark eyes to those of his lover. The anxiety in the hazel eyes was all for him, the overly defined planes of the older Immortal's face still. " I really am okay," he added reassuringly.

"I know," Duncan said. And he did. But it had been close. Too close and he wasn't sure he could survive another loss like Tessa. Had thought he would go mad during Methos' recovery.

Methos sighed silently. Closing his eyes against the expression on MacLeod's face. "Mac. Let go of it. None of it is your fault. Some of it might have been avoided, but we knew this could happen."

"What? That you'd become a target for my sake?"

"No. I'm a target for my own. Duncan," He leaned forward, slender fingers curling gently around MacLeod's wrist. "The people we care about will always be targets. You . Me. Richie. Joe. Amanda. Anne. Anyone and everyone. If there's an Immortal out there who thinks our heads are worth taking, then some will think it worth any risk, any unfairness. You had to know that."

"I did. I do," MacLeod said softly, twisting his hand so that their fingers twined, staring at the joined hands as if they were an amulet. "I also know that the only alternative is not to care at all."

"Exactly. You can't live like that, Mac."

"But you could have. It's not my fault but it is, Methos. You could have remained hidden. Stayed a myth."

"Locked away in tomb, more like," Methos said bitterly and MacLeod looked up at the tone to find the gold-green eyes fixed unerringly on him. "There are lot's of ways to die, Mac. There are even more ways to avoid living. Just as I can't, won't, go back to being the man I was when I rode with Kronos, I will not willingly go back to that living death. It's worth the risk. Worth the price."

"Worth your life?"

"If necessary. Anything worth dying for is worth living for," he said softly, reaching up to pull the Highlander's head close, to press his forehead to MacLeod's, clasped hands between them. His fingers slipping to the exposed skin at the back of MacLeod's neck, tracing the edge of his hairline, strokes shortened by the newly cropped hair, now shorter than Methos' own. "But I won't put you through this again if I can help it. Distance will cure some of the threat."

MacLeod went tense, fingers flexing convulsively against Methos'. "You're leaving."

"Not now. Not today, but soon. And not forever, Mac. But for us to survive, for this...," He raised their clenched hands. "To survive means that we need to be less important to one another to the eyes of the world."

"There are things more important than survival," MacLeod said. They had been circling this argument for days, ever since the older man's voice had returned, but those exchanges hand been short. Methos not strong enough to pursue them for long and the Highlander refusing to add any further stress to the healing mind and body.

"Are there?" Methos asked earnestly. "Mac, the most primal urge in mankind is to survive. Immortals have been given an edge over the rest of mankind. The only thing that can kill us is another of our kind. There has to be a reason why we are so designed to survive."

"The Game."

"And what's at the end of it," Methos said intently. "If there is a purpose to any of this, it lies there. You deny everything you are if you try to deny that fact. That and only that gives meaning to the rest of this madness."

"It's not enough."

"It has to be!" Methos snapped, the hazel eyes flashing with urgency and a trace of anger.

"Methos, it's like trying to find God. You can't define it or shape it. It simply is. Don't give it more meaning than it has."

"Do you ever listen to me, MacLeod?"

"Not when you make no sense," Duncan said, eyes dancing. Methos sighed and leaned back. "Methos, I am not going to drive my self crazy trying to find the ultimate plan in all this. There's no point to any of it if you don't just live and enjoy what parts of life you can...when you can."

"Of course you have to enjoy life! But thinking that pleasure is all there is, is a selfish, single minded way to ..." Methos gave a startled yelp as MacLeod suddenly grabbed his arms and pulled him forward.

"Well, at least we agree on the pleasure part," MacLeod said with an amused glint in his eye, stopping the lecture cold as his mouth descended on the older man's to silence him. Methos resisted for a brief moment in surprise before he abandoned the argument and started some persuasion of a different kind. His hands rode up the muscled expanse of MacLeod's chest, fingers deftly pulling the buttons free and MacLeod shrugged out of the shirt, hands sliding to the slender waist as he pressed Methos back against the pillows, blanket riding dangerously low along the narrow hips as MacLeod shifted upward on the bed until he felt Methos tense and gasp. He went still, afraid he'd hurt the older Immortal. He pulled back. Methos caught his waist and kept him from retreating, the kiss gentling and dying slowly.

"You know. I think I like it better when you don't talk," MacLeod observed when he finished silencing Methos' protests. Grinning hugely when his partner remained silent but not from injury, but because Mac's kiss had literally robbed him of breath.

The hazel eyes narrowed in annoyed amusement, sparkling with anticipation. "I was thinking the same thing. Sometimes you talk too much, Mac," Methos said huskily and drew the dark head back down, mouth opening under the Highlander's--but only after taking a large lungful of air.

It wasn't enough and Methos broke the kiss again, eyes closing as his brain clamored for oxygen and his body screamed for something else. MacLeod smiled at him, not at all averse to distracting the older man from his pet topic, remembering another seduction, not all that long ago, in a hotel room in Bordeaux. The man beneath him, tucked against his chest, was more familiar, more of a friend, more important to him than he had thought possible. He had made love to Methos then to reassure the older Immortal that MacLeod cared about him, that there was a friendship and more to be salvaged out of a disaster.

Now, as he contemplated a similar seduction, the reasons were different, possibly even more selfish. He brushed his thumb across the parted lips, Methos still drawing air into his lungs slowly. Let a slow smile touch his face as he began to touch....to reassure himself that his partner, his lover, was alive and well, to remind Methos that he deserved to be loved. Something he wasn't sure the older Immortal, even now, truly believed.

"Mac..." Methos began softly, noting the darkened eyes, the gentle touch of MacLeod's fingers against his skin, his mouth.

"Hush," The Highlander murmured, bending his head to lay the ghost of a kiss across the soft and yielding mouth. "Enough words."

He began his caresses high, along Methos' temple, tracing the shape of his face as Methos relaxed as his shoulders were brushed with the feather light touches of fingers and lips.

Fingertips found the dark discs of flesh as MacLeod shifted, drawing Methos' arm up, the older Immortal letting his fingers tease the short curled edges of MacLeod's thick dark hair as his lover bent his head to torment the small nipple with his lips and tongue, bringing it to a hardness and capturing it gently with his teeth. He heard Methos sigh brokenly as he soothed the slight discomfort, the intake of breath raising the soft flesh to his lips like an offering, then moved to lay a kiss on the slender throat, above the scar, tracing the tendon as Methos stretched, letting his head fall back to expose more of the sensitive flesh to MacLeod's explorations

The tender, gentle lovemaking eased through Methos like a balm, easing the tension their near-argument had started. He gave in to the sensations, forgetting the sounds he made, the soft gasps and softer moans MacLeod elicited from deep within him as the Highlander drew the blanket aside, feeling the soft brush of worn denim across the bare skin of his thighs and groin. Knowing even as he gave up conscious thought that Duncan needed to love him this way as much as Methos wanted to surrender to him.

This was the promise that couldn't be kept between them no matter what oaths they took, no matter what dreams they harbored. There would be no playful matching of strength, no need to assert their masculinity or reassure each other in their passion that loving and living were forever enmeshed together. This was meant to be a different kind of reassurance. To remind them that no matter how hard their lives became, how immured to the violence their nature demanded they become, there was a point to it all. A brief respite to be found and cherished for its fleeting nature.

The very nature of the Game that had brought them together was also the force that would keep them apart. Not always and not alone. But apart. Separate long enough so that their times together could be sweeter--could exist at all. Still, it was a bitter pill to swallow but Methos took it willingly, washing the sour taste of fate away with a kiss from his friend. Sustenance for the separate journeys they would have to make.

Something of his sorrow must have been transmitted to MacLeod as he drew his mouth away from the vulnerable flesh of his throat, resuming his steady course with a slow, quiet passion to erase, for awhile, that loss. Duncan's hands moved over Methos' chest, exploring the hard curve of muscle, the softer skin at his breast, memorizing by taste and touch and feel the contours and strengths, the outline of muscle and bone, the weaknesses, where the flesh gave under his touch. His fingers spread to fan across the older Immortal's skin, sliding over the sleek flesh, smooth and silken, as muscles moved below in response to his touch, the subtle strength given over to a willing submission. Nerves were sent into a scurrying confusion, not knowing where to react next, the overload of touch and taste and scent sending a shudder through the slender frame, flushing the skin with blood. Methos tried to reach for MacLeod, fingers occasionally touching skin only to have Duncan move, drawing another response from somewhere else and the strong, graceful hands would have to start their search all over again.

Methos finally locked on MacLeod's shoulders as the younger Immortal trailed a line of kisses from his breast to his pelvis. His hot, sweet mouth exploring the shallow hollow of his partner's hip, a gentle suckling of the skin followed by kisses as delicate as moth's wings. MacLeod had not touched his groin, pacing the arousal so it came slowly. The touch so light Methos would begin to feel it only after the mouth and hands had moved elsewhere. The relentless cascade of caresses almost more than he could bear as the Highlander continued urging and coaxing response after response from the pliant body.

Dark eyes shifted to Methos' face as his fingers slid along the inside of the older Immortal's thigh, the leg drawing upward. The hazel eyes were hidden beneath the dark fringe of lashes, the breath shallowing as Methos fought for it through parted lips. He moved restlessly under the loving hands, both protest and plea on his lips until he could no longer control the quivering response in his body. And then the tremors ceased, caught on single harsh intake of air as his lover finally turned his attention to the firming flesh nestled against the soft mat of curls. His brief touch sent Methos into another gentle arch, his cock hardening and rising.

MacLeod felt his body respond to the gratifyingly instantaneous result of his seduction. His own breath caught as Methos arched into his touch, his soul ached with pure longing to see the completion he was coaxing from his partner. His own needs echoed in the absolute surrender of the body under his hands. Moistened fingers slid along the swelling shaft and below, testing the weight of the firming sacs then further still and the air rushed back into Methos lungs in a huge gasp as MacLeod pressed gently for entry, his other hand aiding in the lift of the flexing pelvis as his mouth spread soft kisses along the curved hollow of his hip. He felt rather than saw the arching tension in the beloved body, heard the moan of denial, of pleasure his touches brought and smiled as he moved upward again, lips posing a soft question against the pale skin.

MacLeod caught the soft affirmative with his mouth, murmuring against the dry, trembling lips, moistening them with his own. He eased the choked moan Methos gave as the gentle intrusion brought the older Immortal to the very edge of release, then over, the shudders caught, held and pushed further at the gentle insistent thrust of the taut body against his own. Then the uncontrollable shuddering stilled under MacLeod's steady embrace, the near sobs quieted by the soothing caress of lips and tongue. Body still, Methos returned the kiss, the Highlander giving into a shudder of his own as Methos began a hesitant and awed thank you, exploring his mouth, biting his lips gently, tongue inviting him, caressing him before taking him captive. The long fingers dug into his shoulders then gentled, soothed, traced the strong column of his throat and marked the spot for Methos' mouth to follow. The younger Immortal swallowed and moaned as the swallowing gave Methos a new path to explore, turning his head as the moist lips tracked along his jaw to below his ear, fingers pushing the short thick curls back. He lifted his eyes, dark brown to gold, dropping his gaze under the intensity in those ancient depths then up again. Seeing something eternal and undying that went beyond their Immortality.

Pleasure became less important than memory. Consummation less urgent than confirmation. And it was nearly too much. Too much too lose and too much to keep. Loving becoming less important than being loved as Duncan stretched out against his partner, his brother. The long arms enfolding him securely, taking his weight gladly, easily. Methos rested his cheek against MacLeod's head, passion stilling in exchange for simple comfort.

MacLeod's embrace became minutely firmer, tighter. Methos soothed the sudden clenching fear, separating the dark curls that remained without the long weight of MacLeod's hair. "We are losing nothing, Mac," he said softly. "Desire is an expression, nothing more."

"I know," Duncan said but the admission was wrenched out of him. It would be easier if it were all desire and nothing more. He wanted to silence the sound of his own heart as it beat in defiance of the coming loss. The cabin had become both refuge and prison....sanctuary with a price. "I know that once we leave here, nothing much will change. That both of us will still be who and what we are. Together or separate. I know that, Methos." He raised his head, shifting upward, maintaining as much contact with the familiar, lean body as he could and still see his lover's face. "But we won't be us, anymore. I haven't felt this much a part of someone else since Tessa."

Methos went still, body tensing for a moment then trembling. The eyes closed, head dropping back against the pillows as the face paled.

"Methos...?" MacLeod murmured, concerned.

"Gods...don't say that, Mac," his voice was rough, a whisper of denial. "Don't tempt fate any more than we have already."

MacLeod stared at him for a long moment then shifted, arm sliding around the taut frame and lifting his hand to pull the dark head forward to meet his gaze. "Don't say what? That I love you? Did it need to be said at all? Did you doubt it for one moment?"

"No," Methos murmured. "No. I don't doubt it, Mac. Not what I feel--what I want to feel."

MacLeod chuckled softly, something tight easing inside him. "The feelings are already there, Methos. Love. Saying them doesn't make them any more or less real. Five thousand years hasn't taught you that?" He brushed his thumb against the compressed lips. "This...us...our friendship... all of it speaks of love. Of loving. It's what you've taught me, Methos. What Tessa taught me and Richie. Darius. Joe and Amanda...all of them. There isn't any point to any of this without it. Did ye not tell Alexa that ye loved her?" he asked quietly.

"I did. But she was already dying, Mac. It couldn't do anything worse.. . add any penalty to the emotion."

"You act like it's a curse..."

"Sometimes I think it is. As if there's a rule out there that says everything we love must die. Kind of an Immortal penalty clause," Methos said, trying to make a joke of it but the gold-green eyes were shadowed, haunted by something MacLeod didn't understand.

"Have ye never been told you were loved?" he asked softly, unable to believe that in five thousand years Methos had never heard those words. "Your wives...your partners...?"

The Highlander watched the oldest Immortal reach back through the centuries, the millennia, searching for the instance, the moment when those words first registered in his heart and soul--and saw him come up empty. "I think... I...I stopped them... I knew they would die... and I thought if I could find the right combination of circumstances....to stop the words seemed so....obvious." His breath caught and he pulled away suddenly, sliding from under MacLeod's body as if feelings and words could not exist together. Grace lost as he slid across the bed to stand and stare out the window over the lake. His back to MacLeod, the broad shoulders tense, shaking under the force of his fear.

MacLeod was stunned. It was the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard and at the same time he had wondered how Methos had managed to survive his centuries. For over four hundred years MacLeod had battled loneliness on and off. Watching people he cared about grow old and die. Or just die. Tessa's death had cut out part of his soul. A part Richie had gone a long way toward filling. And Amanda and Joe. Darius. Patching up the void with their friendship and their concern. Their laughter.

Only to have more losses heaped on him, too quickly. Old friends whose losses had stretched across the centuries. Then to have them eased when he'd found himself under the steady regard of an ageless pair of gold-green eyes. Eyes that saw into him, through him. A man who had no reverence for his beliefs or his opinions, tearing at both with an exasperated amusement until MacLeod's awe of the age of the man seeking his friendship had faded into something less overwhelming. And found Methos actually had a deep seated, if irreverent, respect for Highland morals.

Methos' past had ripped that tentative commonality apart. When he had first thought himself betrayed by Methos another kind of death wound had been opened. MacLeod had cut it into himself. He had thought the healing would come from the same familiar sources, but before those friends had even been able to try and heal the wound, he'd found the cure himself. Reattached that part of himself he'd tried to cast out.

He had never stopped to think about what his excision had done to Methos. He thought the wound healed. Negated when he opened his life and soul and heart to the slender figure so studiously avoiding his gaze.

And then this. He hadn't started the wound that the older Immortal had let continue to bleed--it had been opened centuries before he was born. But he may have made it bigger. "We are shaped and fashioned by what we love." He had thought that after seeking Methos out in Paris. The quote coming to mind when they had resolved to acknowledge both the friendship and the deeper bond tying their lives together.

Methos had been loved. MacLeod was certain of that. And had loved, could love desperately, passionately, to the exclusion of all else, despite the careful control, the studied indifference. He had seen that shield slide into place dozens of times. Watched the older man retreat behind words, behind the cool glimmer of gold-green eyes showing no pain when he was hurt the worst, when the cuts went deepest. All that Methos had ever loved was gone, lost to the depths of time, the decay of ages MacLeod could only catch glimpses of in books or in a pair of gold-green eyes. He still held the Highlands of Scotland in his mind and soul. His world had changed over the centuries but it had not disappeared.

For the oldest living Immortal there was no familiarity, nothing he could return to when he needed to be reminded of who he was. It had all died and been forgotten before MacLeod was born. All he had was what he carried with him, what he made for himself.

It wasn't the words Methos feared. He had to have said them somewhere, to someone, but only with his shield firmly in place. The words cast out because they were expected, but there would have been no acknowledgment of that feeling as he said them.

Inviting the fates. The loneliness would come again. Methos had no doubts of it. But if he could pretend it didn't matter...make something else more important.

He could walk back into it with his eyes open and heart closed. His tenuous grip on his mind and soul held by the thin thread of indifference.

"No." It was one word. Not really a protest or denial, but a decision. MacLeod rose off the bed, moving slowly, knowing the shields were already sliding into place and that once there nothing he said or did would penetrate.

"Do you really need to hear the words, Mac?" Methos asked turning to him the moment the Highlander's broad hands touched his shoulders. "Are they that important to you?"

The gold-green eyes were steady, the voice soft and slightly hoarse. The tension in the body had eased. The warm regard the perfect blend of understanding and generosity and amusement. Too perfect.

It was too late. MacLeod realized it the moment their eyes met. He had come to know the moods in those eyes, the constant change, the ever present laughter and the haunted sorrows. The hazel eyes meeting his now showed none of those things. They were too steady, unchanging--masked.

He had been too slow and God alone knew when the window of opportunity would open again, if ever. He fought to understand it, knowing that it was this that had allowed Methos to survive the millennia... this detachment of spirit. The man he had come to love could and would surrender everything to attain the goal he'd set. To see the world survive the Gathering in the hands of a man like Duncan MacLeod, he would surrender his body, his intellect, his soul and his life. He would sacrifice all that and more. But to accomplish any of it he had to keep that goal the one untouchable thing in his life. Unassailable by anything or anyone, including MacLeod. Including himself.

Methos believed it. If he stopped believing it everything he had been, was or could be became worthless. Anger rose in MacLeod at the sheer arrogance of the older Immortal. The anger tempered by a wall of despair so high he couldn't see the top of it.

"It doesn't matter," Duncan said tersely, dully. "Right now you could say you hate me and it would mean exactly the same thing. Nothing."


"Don't. Not a word. You're not worthy to take the prize but you and you alone are the one to decide who should? That's outrageous even for you, Methos," MacLeod said coldly, the words cutting through him bitterly.

"What are you talking about?"

"You. Your plan. Your oath." The Highlander spat out the word like a curse. "With my shield or on it. It's not big enough for both of us, Methos. And it's too heavy for me to carry."

The aquiline features went hard, remote. "I didn't ask you to carry it."

"Then what are you asking, Methos? I am not a pawn in the Game as you see it. Did you think that an Oathtaking would hold me...would bind me to what you wanted because of my sense of honor? You don't even understand what honor is."

It cut deep. MacLeod saw the thrust take hold. Their definitions of honor weren't the same. They had been bred in different centuries. In whole different worlds. Methos had had five millennia to erect his fortress.

"You're a fool, MacLeod," Methos murmured, not even stopping to staunch the bleeding that cut had caused. "Do you honestly think that love will save the world? That one emotion can keep the whole damn thing from collapsing in on itself? That's the Prize, Mac. Not the power, but the responsibility. And yes, I want the winner to be someone who understands it, who feels it with every breath he takes. Someone who knows that honor isn't an option when the fate of millions may rest in his hands. It may be you. It could be you. But the fact that I believe that does not make everything else a lie."

"How the hell would you know? You've twisted your ideal into something like a god, Methos! I'm not a god. I have no desire to be one. Not for you. Not for the world."

"I know," Methos said softly. "Whereas, were I the one to win, Mac, that's exactly what I would become. I know myself too well, Highlander. I can't resist that power. I never could. The only way I can control it is to be part of engineering it. I'm well aware of the arrogance of my own actions."

MacLeod caught the break in his voice and a flare of something akin to hope shot through him. The thread was unraveling. "Are you?" He pressed, hating the words even as he said them but Methos had branded his presence into his mind and soul--there was no way to exorcise the ancient soul from his own. And no way he could live with this barrier between them. He wanted...needed Methos to love him enough to want to live, regardless of the outcome of the Game. That goal was worth any price of pain. "How can you even begin to understand honor? Anyone's? Mine...your own. Honor. Honesty. Truth. You can't even see it you've been lying so long. What am I to you, Methos? Your proxy? Did you think you could seduce me into being your figurehead? That if you fucked me skillfully enough I would do whatever you wanted? You don't want the prize? Bullshit. You're afraid to even try for it."

The last cut both ways. Deeply. Perhaps fatally. Methos had gone utterly still, the lean body still held loosely. The shield still before him.

Except it wasn't. It shattered under the truth of that one lie.

"That's it, isn't it?" Duncan pressed onward before Methos could pick up the pieces. "It's easier to live for the ideal than just live. Easier to believe there is some grand reason why you've survived for five thousand years than to think it was for nothing. That you got lucky. That you were cleverer and more ruthless than the rest of us. Justification for every dishonorable thing you've done. Every lie you've told," MacLeod drove on relentlessly, face flushed with desperate anger. "What's the real reason you couldn't kill Kronos, Methos? Not because you didn't feel competent to judge him. You've set your self up to judge for the entire world. Why was he different? Holly didn't get the same hesitation. Was it because you needed one of us to prove the better man? You already knew you could manipulate me and you knew you could manipulate Kronos. If he'd won would you have taken him as your lover again? Did you need to find out which one of us would go along more easily with your plan?"

"Stop," It was a murmur. A plea. A denial. MacLeod fell silent, fighting to take a breath that didn't taste acrid and sour. He didn't believe what he had said but Methos did. He had taken the older Immortal's love and used it to flay him wide open. Deliberately. Cruelly. Necessarily.

There was only two ways this battle could end: Either Methos would walk away, his ideal, his goal in tact, whole and still unassailable or he would trade his hope for humanity for to reclaim his own soul.

The first might well destroy Duncan MacLeod.

The second would most certainly destroy Methos.

"None of it...none of 'us', was a lie," Methos said, a whisper. "It was.... foolish... a weakness... but not a lie, Mac. If you can't believe that ...."

"Then what?" MacLeod asked harshly. "You'll offer me your head? Again? It's pointless, isn't it Methos? If you can love this much, then you are as worthy as I am to take the Prize, no matter what you've done, who you've been. Denying it does nothing but make the whole Game a lie. It makes your very existence a lie. And mine as well, because there will be no resolution. Ever."

It was all MacLeod could do not to relent, to keep his expression from betraying his own self-loathing at the wounds he'd dealt. His body was shaking from it, nausea in his stomach at the total lack of expression on his lover's face; on his friend's face. Truth or lie, Methos had been stripped of any illusions--his own, MacLeod's--exposing the core of the man within. If he reached for those walls again, pulled that shield back in place, MacLeod would lose him forever, might never see him again except at the end of a sword--a just end for the near betrayal he was inflicting.

"I can't love something bigger than us, Methos. I can only love you," He said softly when the older Immortal made no sound except the harsh, sharp intake of breath. Long moments before the gold-green eyes met his, hope and loss mingled in one despairing glance.

A sword thrust would be easier to take than the hopelessness he saw in those eyes. He was literally asking the older Immortal to deny everything he was for an uncertain promise.

The sound Methos made wasn't a sob or a moan, it was strangled, harsh...a death rattle.

MacLeod moved then, carefully. Methos had not but the moment MacLeod touched him the slender frame collapsed, slipped bonelessly to his knees as if only the Highlander's words had been holding him erect. The younger man caught him, hands sliding up his arms to slow the descent.

"You don't understand..." Methos said, and fought to breathe, a soft sound escaping him.

No, love, I don't, MacLeod thought pulling the unresisting and unresponsive body into his arms. There was no way he could ever understand five thousand years. He didn't blame Methos for any of the lies or deceits he had erected. A part of him honestly believed there was a reason this man had survived so long but he dared not speak it. Who better to guide the world than a man who had seen both the best and worst humanity could offer? That thought had rung through him from their first meeting.

But if Methos were right and the Prize was the responsibility for all of it, MacLeod was none too certain he wouldn't run screaming from the Game in terror himself if he found himself face to face with the possibility.

"You told me we can only bear one cross at a time, love," MacLeod said quietly, stroking the fine silk of Methos' hair, smelling it, the softness matching the gentle place in his soul that Methos would always occupy. "But the truth is, we don't have to bear a cross at all. Not all the time. You can set it aside."

"I'm not sure I can," Methos whispered. "I'm not sure I know how or if I ever did."

"You can. You were there, Methos. You know what that cross came to mean, right or wrong. Religion or Myth."

"Truth or lie?"

"Sometimes they are the same thing. A lie can be made truth. The truth can--"

"If you say the truth can set me free, I will throw up," Methos chuckled shakily, the attempt broken by a near sob. The strain evident in his desperate attempt to pull himself free of the treacherous void he had been hovering near.

"I've cleaned up worse," MacLeod said and gripped the older Immortal's arms, shifting to face him. The shield was down but it could go back up at any moment. "Methos, my loving you...being in love with you...carries no more damnation than your love for Alexa. It causes nothing. It will not be the reason others might hunt us or use us to get to each other. If they want us, they will find a way or not, and how I feel or how you feel isn't going to change that one iota. I'm not asking you to give up this goal you've set. I'm asking you to let me help you make it happen. Both of us want the Prize to go to someone who deserves it, who will wield it justly. But you don't get to choose the winner and you don't get to justify your actions based on an end result you can't predict."

For a long moment, MacLeod thought he had pushed too hard, cut too deeply. The hazel eyes had gone vacant, lost in some thought MacLeod couldn't follow. The body had lost any vestige of strength, only the Highlander's grip on his arms keeping him upright. His chest was tight and aching when the gold-green eyes were shuttered away behind bruised looking eyelids. His own eyes closed, a soft moan escaping him.

Methos' breath caught at the intensity in the Highlander's gaze, the broad hands gripped his arms fiercely and there was probably pain but he couldn't feel it. MacLeod had just managed to rip him to shreds and remake him in the span of a few heartbeats, but the creature he had become was fragile still and the man he had been was not yet forgotten. To start over.....he couldn't bear the dark eyed gaze and shut his eyes to banish it so he could think.

He wasn't strong enough to do it again. He'd barely had the strength to get this far. And then he heard it, the soft sound, a moan of pain so deep it cut through his fears, quelled his weakness and he reacted without thinking, the cure for the pain coming naturally after centuries of denial. His hands sought the bowed head, long fingers sliding along the firm jaw, thumb brushing the tight lips.

"Yes. I love you, Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod," he said softly, longing and dismay warring in his gold-green eyes. "All the gods and fates help us both."

He lifted the Highlander's head, waited for the dark eyes to open and meet his own. No denial, no barriers, no shields. The words didn't change the anything. They were insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But they held the possibility of changing the outcome of the Game.

And therefore the world.