Redemption’s Price

by

Rosemary


There came a time when you just had to cut your losses and go on with life. When you had your legs blasted out from under you before you reached twenty, that was a lesson you learned early. Joe Dawson knew he had more faith and optimism than any ten men put together, but there came a time when even the most positive of thinkers had to face the facts as they were and accept what could not be changed.

And what could not be changed was the fact that Duncan MacLeod, of the Clan MacLeod, the Immortal he’d watched and idolized these past twenty-one years, the man who’d been one of his closest friends these past six years, was not coming back. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but Joe was realist enough to face facts. Mac wasn’t coming back anymore than poor Ritchie was.

He was partially at fault for that. He was Mac’s Watcher. It had been his job to be standing on the bridge beside Ryan’s Watcher when MacLeod had been abducted. But he’d grown too damn complacent over the past five years. He’d known Mac’s schedule for the day – estate auction in the morning, an afternoon workout at the Paris dojo the Highlander frequented, back to the barge for a couple of hours, then dinner with Methos and him at six. Joe hadn’t seen any reason to be standing around an icy dock that afternoon when MacLeod would bring him up to date on any developments that night, so Dawson had taken care of his own business instead…and Mac had disappeared off the face of the Earth. If he’d just been there, he could have trailed the car in which Mac had been kidnapped. He wouldn’t have interfered with the Game himself, but if he’d known where MacLeod was taken, he could have told Methos and let Mac’s lover handle it, but…he’d shirked off on the job and Duncan MacLeod had paid for it. With his life, in all probability; although, Methos still insisted that Mac wasn’t dead.

Which brought Dawson to his latest dilemma – Methos.

Dawson sat in his car, staring up at the barge through the pouring rain, almost afraid to go inside. MacLeod was lost, after more than eight months, Joe had no choice but to accept that. What was becoming clearer with each passing day was the fact that he was losing Methos as well. And he didn’t have a clue as to what he could do to halt the downward plunge.

Those first few awful days after Mac had been taken, Methos had seemed to be coping all right. Hell, Methos had been more than all right. The ancient Immortal had pulled himself together and shaken off the fugue that had clouded him since Longford’s challenge. It had been Joe himself who’d been the basket case then. He never would have made it through Ritchie’s funeral if Methos hadn’t been there by his side, holding him up, promising him that they would get Duncan back. That promise was the only thing that had gotten Joe through Ritchie’s burial. They’d get Mac back, and the bastard who’d caused all this would pay - it had become almost a mantra during those days.

But as the days turned into weeks, and still no call came, Methos had changed. The man who had been Joe’s emotional rock seemed to…not crumble, but just drift further and further away, into madness, Joe was beginning to suspect.

The ancient Immortal wasn’t eating. What was even more alarming was that he wasn’t drinking, either, at least not alcohol. For the past month or so, the only liquid to pass Methos’ lips had been water. Methos seemed to have sworn off sleep until Mac’s return as well. Every waking hour that Methos had was dedicated to finding Duncan MacLeod. The only sleep he seemed to get were those fleeting minutes when Methos’ drained body would insist on rest and he’d drift off in the middle of a conversation. Joe was worried sick over it, and he had no idea how to affect a change. He’d thought Mac had been bad when he obsessed on something, but Methos could write a whole new volume on stubbornness.

At least Methos wasn’t risking life and limb combing the city anymore. Dawson didn’t think Methos could win a challenge with a three-year-old these days; the man was so exhausted. The two months Methos had been canvassing Paris and its environs inch by inch, stopping to investigate every Immortal signature he encountered, had been among the longest weeks of Dawson’s life. It had come to swords twice when Methos was poking around other Immortals’ territory, and both times Joe’s friend had been damn lucky to keep his head. Quitting that suicidal plan was the only argument Joe had won so far, and it was only the reminder that if Methos were to lose one of these inevitable, imbecilic challenges that there would be no one left to search for MacLeod that had convinced Methos to abandon the plan.

Though what Methos was doing now…

Shaking his head, Joe gathered together his walking sticks and the fragrant plastic bags containing dinner, opened the car door and braved the elements. So much for the perfect fall day they’d been predicting on this morning’s weather report. He couldn’t think of anything more dismal than a rainy Halloween. He supposed he should be grateful it was rain. Winter seemed to be setting in early this year. Another few degrees colder and this water would be snow.

The downpour hit him like a cold shower, drenching his head and clothes the second he pulled himself from his vehicle. An umbrella would have helped, of course, but there was no way he could handle his walking sticks, their dinner and an umbrella, so he sheltered the food bags as best as possible and made his slow way to the barge’s gangplank. Even if it hadn’t been so slippery, he wouldn’t have been moving much quicker. This cold dampness made his stumps ache like a son-of-a-bitch.

After a cursory knock on the barge’s door, Joe pushed his way in. He knew better than to wait for an invitation.

Shaking off the water, he put his bags down and removed his coat. A sweet scent in the air tickled his dripping nostrils as soon as he was inside. Incense. Yesterday the place had smelt like a church from the frankincense Methos was burning. This evening…Joe thought it might be sage.

Taking a deep, bracing breath, he started for the stairs.

If Mac returned tomorrow, it was doubtful if he’d recognize his own home. The barge looked like the outcome of a violent struggle between a library and dungeon and dragons movie set. Piles of huge ancient tomes littered the entire place. The dusty old books were bad enough in themselves, but the occult paraphernalia scattered amongst them gave Dawson the creeps. Jars of herbs and less savory things lined the galley’s counter. They glistened under the light of the candelabras and dozens of votive lights. Those flickering candles and hearth fire were the only source of illumination in the cavernous barge.

Which was probably just as well, considering the new décor. The enormous crystal ball in the center of the coffee table seemed to eat the light, rather than refract it. The Celtic ribbonwork on the wooden base that supported it would have been attractive under normal circumstances, but there was just something about that ponderous crystal above it that overwhelmed its beauty. Joe didn’t know what Methos was doing with the thing, but it felt…dangerous, which was utterly absurd. Joe knew it was only a hunk of stone.

The silver bowl that was half filled with water beside it had the same kind of haunting presence about it, as did many of the other strange objects Methos had scattered about MacLeod’s normally mundane abode. Joe couldn’t help but take inventory of the new additions, just to see if anything else had been added.

He thought that the stack of little twigs of various bark shadings at the far end of the coffee table might be new, but the hide pouch with the small, round, mysterious petroglyph- decorated gray stones spilling out of it had definitely been here yesterday. The most unusual additions to the barge’s ensemble were an ancient, smoky mirror that was set up beside the hearth on a heavy-duty easel, a tiny harp with wire strings that were black as soot and a long cloak made of black feathers that was resting on the corner of the couch, as though recently discarded.

Joe didn’t know what the answer to finding Mac was – providing Mac were still alive to be found – but he sure as hell didn’t think it was this.

He didn’t see Methos at first glance. Joe hoped that he was finally getting some rest. Sighing at the desperation that had motivated his normally skeptical, academic friend to resort to all this occult crap, Joe started down the stairs.

He was halfway to the dining room table when he noticed Methos sitting there. He almost jumped out of his skin at the shock of it. He’d been looking straight in that direction and not seen the Immortal, but Methos was sitting right there in plain sight, wearing a no longer white Henley and rumpled looking blue jeans.

Joe paused, trying to figure out what his friend was doing. Methos was bent over the table with his left arm held straight out in front of him. Methos seemed to be dangling something at the end of a string over a piece of paper on the table. A few steps closer, and Joe was able to see that the paper on the table was a map and that a small pebble was tied to the end of the string. Joe saw that the pebble was swirling in a manner that appeared to be entirely unrelated to Methos’ hold on it, which seemed to be quite still. Joe watched the tiny white stone spiral, a chill that had nothing to do with his drenched state stealing over him as he recognized how completely unnatural the stone’s movement was.

The pebble lowered to the paper, finally touching down. When it did, Methos peered at the map for a long moment before releasing a disappointed sounding sigh.

“No luck, huh?” Joe asked.

Methos jerked straight up in his chair, his purple-bagged eyes staring over at Dawson as though Joe had just manifested on the spot. It was clear that the ancient Immortal had had no hint that Dawson had arrived, which was not good survival-wise.

“Joe,” Methos breathed, sinking back into his chair.

“What’s up with the cat toy?” Joe gestured towards the string dangling from Methos left hand. Methos’ right was busy at the moment massaging the no doubt strained muscle’s of his left arm’s biceps. God only knew how long he’d been holding that thing out like that.

Joe took heart from the fact that his head wasn’t instantly bitten off. There were days when he couldn’t say hello right.

“It’s called dowsing,” Methos answered, giving up on the arm rubbing and just slumping back in his chair with his head tilted over the back, staring up at the ceiling.

Without asking permission, Joe steadied his stance beside the book-crowded dining table and started to clear some space on the tabletop.

“So what’s it s’pposed ta do?” Dawson questioned, figuring it was best to keep his friend talking.

Apparently, he hadn’t hidden his feelings on the weird stuff Methos had been doing well enough. When Methos replied, he sounded almost his droll self, as if even he understood how bizarre this was.

“Theoretically, the string is supposed to circle over the spot where the missing article is and lead me to it,” Methos informed.

“It didn’t work?” Joe tried for sincerity, but it was beyond him. All this stuff was scaring the hell out of him. Methos was the realist in their group. The ancient Immortal was always the first to perceive an unpleasant truth, always the one with the most prosaic, sometimes-ruthless arguments. To see this logical man driven by desperation into charlatanry hurt almost as much as losing Mac had.

Methos’ slumped shoulders shrugged. “Oh, it worked.”

“But?”

“I’ve combed that area five times this month, Joe. It’s nothing but warehouses and abandoned factories. Every time I try dowsing for him…it stops at the same place, but there’s nothing there,” Methos rubbed his hand through his shaggy hair, sending the uncombed locks into complete disarray. Joe supposed he was lucky his distracted friend remembered to shower a couple of times a week. Haircuts had apparently gone the way of sleep. Methos’ disheveled hair was down past his shoulders. Were he not so pasty and hollow-eyed, the longer hair might have been attractive, but given Methos’ run down condition, it only seemed to accentuate how thin his face had become.

Joe took a deep breath. Knowing the trouble he was buying into, he hesitated voicing his next words. He could see the poor guy in front of him was hanging onto his sanity by an even thinner string than the one Methos held in his hand. Methos was living in hope, focusing every bit of his energy on recovering Mac. Part of Joe said it was cruel to rip that last, pathetic hope away, but…friends didn’t keep their mouths shut when the people they cared about were eating their hearts out over a hopeless cause. “Did you ever think that maybe you were in the right place?”

“Joe, I told you. I’ve been there. I felt nothing…”

“Maybe there’s nothing to feel,” Joe gently countered. “If Mac is dead and buried--”

“He’s alive,” Methos insisted in the same inarguable tone he used whenever he made that same statement.

Normally, Joe let the discussion drop here. He wasn’t into kicking a man when he was down – and he had never seen any man this down, not even himself in those horrible months after Nam before he’d dedicated his life to being a Watcher. But…he couldn’t allow his friend to go on this way, either. One way or another, this had to stop, before Methos went totally off the deep end; though, looking at the paraphernalia around him, Joe couldn’t help but wonder how much further Methos had to go before he bottomed out. So, gathering his resolve around him, Joe pressed, “You told me yourself that an Immortal can’t feel a friend’s death unless it’s part of the Game. If mortals killed Mac--”

“He’s not dead,” Methos sounded more tired than hysterical, for all that there was a core of steel behind the assertion.

“How do you know that?” Joe demanded, beyond frustration with this implacable, illogical stand.

This was the place where Methos usually clammed up and refused to say another word, but the exhausted man in front of Joe didn’t seem to have the strength for such stonewalling. After a deep breath, Methos softly offered, “I know he’s not dead because I see him, every damn night.”

“See him…” Joe echoed, really scared now.

Those red-rimmed eyes that hadn’t seen sleep in God knew how many days locked with his own. Joe had seen a lot of pain in his years. The stuff Mac dealt with alone was often more than Dawson cared to contemplate, but the depth of raw agony in Methos’ eyes was terrifying. Just looking into it hurt Joe physically. He couldn’t imagine what it felt like to bear it.

“Yes, see him. He’s not dead. He’s…buried alive, I think.” Now that Methos had at last broached the topic, he didn’t seem able to stop, for he continued with, “He’s in a completely dark, enclosed space. He can’t see anything. He can’t move. He can barely breathe. He wakes up and he dies…revives and dies…over and over again, on an almost daily basis. For months, he was screaming my name…but now…he’s just quiet…”

The heavy book Joe was in the process of transferring to a nearby chair dropped from his hands to the floor, making a huge crash in the sudden silence. Joe’s stomach lurched within him at the horrible picture Methos’ words had painted.

Mac buried somewhere, screaming in agony…it wasn’t an image he even wanted to contemplate. Better his friend were dead than that…and, it just couldn’t be true. Methos had really lost it.

This was far worse than Dawson had thought. This wasn’t encroaching madness. This was full-blown insanity…and Joe hadn’t a clue what he could do to help. Maybe if Sean Byrnes were still alive, Dawson might have violated what few portions of his Watchers’ Oath remained and approached the wise Immortal for help with Methos, but with Sean dead, Joe didn’t know whom to turn to. A mortal shrink would lock Methos away for the parts of the Immortal’s story that were true. This other stuff….

“I knew you wouldn’t believe me,” Methos said quietly, sounding totally lucid and sane for a raving lunatic.

“No, I…” Dawson stammered, trying to cover. The only thing he did know for sure was that it was best to keep Methos talking, no matter how wild the stuff he was saying was.

“Joe, don’t try to con a con artist. Do you think I don’t know how crazy it sounds? Why do you think I didn’t tell you for so long? It’s okay. You don’t have to believe me,” Methos sounded himself. Totally dispirited, but himself.

His basic honesty winning out, Joe found himself questioning subjects that his better sense was insisting that he veer clear of, “You tellin’ me that you’ve suddenly developed some kinda clairvoyance where MacLeod is concerned?”

Methos sighed. He gave a slow shake of his head, but held Dawson’s gaze as he answered, “Not suddenly developed. I suppose you’d call it…reclaimed. You’ve met people who have the sight. Joe, I know you’re not a superstitious man, but you’ve seen the scientific studies that support the existence of such…sensitivity.”

“Yeah, I guess I have. I just never saw anything to indicate that you had those kinda abilities,” Joe laid it on the line, praying that this man who had carried a sword for five millennia would not react violently to having his psychosis questioned.

To his shock and relief, Methos just calmly replied, “No, I don’t suppose you have.”

“So, you’d have to understand where this would be…a little hard to believe,” Joe continued, almost wishing that Methos were flipping out like most whackos did when their delusions were challenged. But the exhausted man in front of him was simply staring at him with something like compassion in his gaze, acting way too much like the totally rational Methos he had known for almost fifteen years now for Joe to stay frightened of him.

“Yes…I understand, Joe. Don’t worry about it.” Seeming more hurt than angry, Methos’ attention settled on the dinner bags Joe had settled on an empty chair. “Is that dinner I smell?”

Without another word on the previous subject, Methos preceded to clear his map away and make room across from him for Joe to sit.

“I’m going to owe you a fortune by the time all this is over,” Methos commented, sounding so matter-of-fact about the all over, finding MacLeod bit that Joe almost believed it himself. “You’ve been feeding me for eight months now. Hold on, I’ll get some plates.”

Joe watched his seemingly rational companion cross to the nearby galley and quickly take the dinner plates and cutlery Dawson had left in the draining board after he’d washed them last night back to the table.

“What did Maurice make for us tonight?” Methos questioned.

Joe could tell from Methos’ expression that his friend wasn’t really hungry, but was feigning interest to humor him. And once again, it was right there in Joe’s face that Methos was acting too normal for a legitimately crazy person, which led Joe to wonder how sane Methos had been before all this began. After all, how sane could anyone be who had led the kind of life this man had and seen so much loss?

“Lamb stew,” Dawson answered, quickly opening up his sacks and sorting out their meals before Methos’ attention jumped back to his obsessive search. His friend needed food and rest more than anything right now. Joe knew he was being patronized, but if it got some nourishment into his grief-stricken friend, he was willing to put up with it. Who knew, maybe some solid food would ground Methos.

He surreptitiously watched as the ancient Immortal forced himself to choke down half a plate of the thick soup. When it became clear that Methos was just playing with his meal now instead of eating it, Joe casually revived their former conversation. “You always struck me as a rational, scientific man. How can someone who claims to have studied with Socrates waste his time with this kinda mumbo-jumbo?”

Methos slowly raised his gaze from the potato he was dismantling with a fork. Something almost…sagacious entered his expression as he softly answered, “I am a scientific man, Joe. There was a time when what I’m doing here was a science…and I excelled at it.”

Seeing how calm Methos was, Joe poked at the basic logic faults in his response by carefully asking, “So why’d ya give it up if it worked so good?”

“For the same reason men like Jim Coltec had to abandon their belief systems. Christianity was conquering the world. Those who wouldn’t or couldn’t convert died horrible deaths and…I wanted to live. I saw the way the world was going and did what I’ve always done to survive – changed with the times. That didn’t invalidate any of my former knowledge. It was just easier to go with the flow and embrace science. The two approaches aren’t contradictory, no matter what you might think.”

“So if it usta work for you, why can’t you get it to now?” Joe questioned, trying to get his deluded friend to see sense. Methos was smart enough to know that it didn’t work because it was all chicanery.

Once again, there was no censure for his obvious doubt, though the resigned cast that came over Methos’ thin features almost made Joe think he’d voiced the disparaging thought aloud.

“It’s hard to explain. I was never…a true adept. My…teacher always complained that I had a great deal of natural talent, but no true discipline. And I need that discipline now, Joe. Most of what I’m doing requires a level of constant practice that most schedules don’t allow. The mystery grows in silence, and modern life just doesn’t have a lot of that. Also, an intensely close relationship with the natural world around you is a prerequisite to most of what I’m doing and I simply do not have that level of familiarity anymore.”

“What do you mean by familiarity? You’ve lived in Paris on and off for centuries. Who could be more familiar with this city than you?” Dawson asked, intrigued in spite of himself. Methos wasn’t babbling like some half-cracked psychic trying to sell their wares to the credulous. The explanation had a twisted kind of sense to it.

“It’s not that kind of familiarity. There are…” Methos seemed to search for the correct words before continuing with, “…energies that flow through the natural world that these arts tap into--”

“We talkin’ spirits here?” Joe interjected, trying not to mock out of hand.

Methos’ weary sigh told him how totally he’d failed, “To some degree, but beyond the mystical, there are physical energies that flow in set patterns through this planet. Most holy ground is situated above these natural power sources…”

“Which is why Immortals can’t kill on it?” Joe asked, worried that what Methos was saying was beginning to make true sense. He knew the gaes against killing on holy ground. It had never made sense to him why an Immortal could safely take a head in one site, but should he move one inch onto sacred ground and commit that same act, all hell would break loose. Wasn’t that true magic at work, Dawson wondered, not liking the direction his thoughts were taking.

Every now and then Joe had to give himself a mental shake and remind himself of the facts of this weird life he led. He was here speaking to a five thousand year old man, the oldest Immortal. Methos’ very nature would seem magical to most people. In the thousands of years there had been Watchers, not one of them had ever witnessed an Immortal birth. These beings just appeared fully formed as if spat out from fairyland. They lived only so long as they kept their heads attached to their shoulders, and when they were beheaded, the energy that was released was fully capable of killing a mortal if that person were unfortunate enough to get in the way of the Quickening. By any normal human standards, Methos’ biology was the stuff of fantasy.

For the first time in way too many months, Joe began to doubt his own stand on this. Who was he to question Methos? This man had lived longer and forgotten more about history and the nature of the universe than science understood today. Joe thought his friend was going crazy, but if he told any of his non-Watcher friends about Methos’ Immortality, they’d think him just as cracked. So, maybe he needed to cut his friend a little slack and at least attempt to support him. God knew, Joe had rarely seen a man more in need of solace.

“Yes. The Quickening causes a temporary short in those energy lines that, as we know from Vesuvius, can be quite catastrophic,” Methos answered his question about Immortals killing on holy ground.

“I still don’t get why you can’t tap into these energies anymore,” Joe admitted after a brief, uncomfortable silence.

Something in his approach must have changed because the wariness left Methos’ tired features almost entirely. Seeming a little shy, Methos offered, “It’s like…turning your back on a friend. The longer the estrangement lasts, the harder it is to reestablish contact. When Myrddid was killed, I packed all this stuff up and…forgot everything he ever tried to teach me. Now, that I have a need, I’m turning to it again and…”

“And…” Joe encouraged, uneasy. Methos was too much his usual self right now to blow off everything he was saying. Joe knew truth when he heard it, and Methos seriously believed every word he was saying.

“As ever, the fault is not in the system, but in the practitioner. I am too desperate to focus most of the time and…”

“Yes?” this time, there was no judgment in Dawson’s tone. He just wanted to hear the rest.

“I’m too…skeptical. I’ve dealt with the hard sciences too long. You get immediate, clear-cut results there, and so much of these arts are…open to interpretation. I get fragments instead of the whole picture, riddles instead of answers and…I just don’t have the time to unravel it all. Every minute I sit here trying to figure these arcane messages out, Duncan is lying somewhere dying of thirst and hunger…”

Joe dropped his spoon to his bowl and reached across the table to grip Methos’ forearm. He didn’t know what to say that could possibly help, but he couldn’t let Methos torment himself this way. “You’re not to blame for this. You’re doing everything you can to help him.”

“It’s…not enough, Joe. It’s never enough,” Methos’ rasped out, his bloodshot eyes swimming with liquid.

Joe felt his own fill in sympathy. Losing Mac had hurt him more than anything he could remember, including the loss of his legs, but it had totally destroyed Methos. This Immortal, who had survived all that history could throw at him, was crumbling before Joe’s eyes – because of a broken heart. Joe gave the muscular forearm a squeeze and softly corrected, “It was enough for Duncan MacLeod and will be again when we find him.”

“You think he’s dead,” Methos reminded.

“I’ve been wrong before,” Joe said. “Come on. Eat some more. When you’re done, we’ll take a drive out to wherever your pebble told you we should go and have a look around.”

Hearing his own words, he couldn’t help but think, welcome to insanity.

“You’ll come with me?” Rarely had he seen Methos so shocked. There was a very young and childlike quality to the exhausted Immortal’s surprise, as though it had never occurred to Methos that he had the right to ask for back up.

“Yeah, I’ll come. If you chow down,” he qualified, seeing the means of getting some more food into his way too slender companion. Joe still thought this kind of search a useless effort, but…he wasn’t doing it for Mac.

“Thank you, Joseph,” Methos said with embarrassing gratitude and took another spoonful of stew.

“Nothin’ to thank me for,” Joe shrugged.

His own dinner finished, Joe stared around the candlelit barge. Most of the stuff Methos had brought in was self-explanatory, but a few of the new additions still puzzled him.

“What’s with the feathered robe?” Dawson asked.

“Myrddid used to wear it when he was…working. He said it helped him focus,” Methos explained.

“It do anything for you?”

The wry lift of Methos’ left eyebrow was totally his old friend. “It made me perspire.”

“Shouldn’t those feathers have rotted by now?” Joe questioned once he realized how old that garment must be.

“The one thing I’ve learned to do well in my life is preserve for posterity. Besides,” and here something like uneasiness entered Methos’ attitude, “Myrddid’s belongings don’t seem to be aging at the same rate most of my other stuff is.”

“What do you mean they’re not aging?” Joe asked, a shiver running through him. He really didn’t need to hear this on Halloween night.

“Even my best preserved pieces show their age. Wood gets brittle. The moisture in feathers and fabrics make them rot over the ages, but…these were perfect when I opened them up. It was like time had stopped for them. I swear I could still smell Myrddid in the robe,” Methos quietly offered, his expression seeming to say that he didn’t have much hope of being believed.

Joe swallowed his instinctive ‘That’s not possible.’ That was a given. Right now, he was working at comforting. Sanity could come later.

When he made no reply, Methos offered, “And the harp was in tune.”

“Now I know you’re pullin’ my chain,” Joe said, unable to keep quiet at that. He was a musician. He mightn’t know diddly about the lifespan of feathers, but the one thing he knew more about than Duncan MacLeod was stringed instruments. “Harps don’t stay in tune for more than twenty minutes under the best of circumstances. I used to date a harpist. Retuning was the bane of her existence.”

Methos gave a shrug. “It was and still is in tune. The only thing I couldn’t find among my…teacher’s possessions was Myrddid’s tuning key.”

Joe pulled himself out of his seat and cautiously approached the tiny harp that was resting on the end of the couch. Switching both walking sticks to his left hand, he cautiously ran his right index finger down the twenty-four harp strings. They rang with bell-like clarity in perfect scales.

More weirded out than he cared to admit, Joe snatched his hand back as though burnt.

Turning his back to the ancient instrument, he retreated to the table. “What’s it doin’ here, anyway? The other occult stuff, I understand, but a harp…?”

Methos finished chewing the food in his mouth, swallowed, then said in a perfectly reasonable tone, “That harp is the most dangerous thing in the barge right now…and I’m including the swords and my revolver in that estimation.”

“Dangerous…” Joe shook his head. “What’re you gonna do with it – play an enemy to sleep?”

Methos was quiet for a long moment before answering. “Joe, I know you’re not going to believe this, but I’ve seen that harp turn the tide of battle. I’ve seen it call up thunderstorms on a perfectly sunny day.”

Ridiculous as the claims were, Joe didn’t even try to refute them. He could see Methos fully believed what he was saying, and, who knew what Methos had seen? If this harp had belonged to Merlin the magician, anything was possible. A man didn’t become that kind of legend without something to stoke the myths. A good military strategist or someone who’d watched the weather patterns in an area as long as an Immortal could would have more than sufficient abilities to hoodwink the masses. Methos was a prosaic cynic nowadays, but there was no telling what he’d been like a couple of thousand years ago. Disbelievers didn’t usually hang with mystics, much less claim them as their teachers, anymore than gurus suffered cynics. Whatever Merlin had been, it was clear that Methos had bought into the man’s rap hook, line and sinker.

But that Methos was as dead as Merlin. Joe couldn’t accept that the Methos he knew today would still believe that a few pieces of wood and metal strings could have the kind of magical powers he was suggesting. “And you think it still can do that?”

“Oh, it can still do it, in the hands of the right man,” Methos answered, irony heavy in his cultured voice.

“Come on, Methos. Work with me here. I’m tryin’ta take you serious, but how can you expect me to accept that a musical instrument can….”

“It’s not a musical instrument. It’s a…” Methos seemed to search for a word for almost a full minute before he tagged on a dissatisfied sounding, “…Druid’s harp.”

“You’re gonna tell me how that makes a difference, right?” Joe demanded with a forced smile.

“Myrddid played this harp for close to a thousand years, Joe. All the rest of the stuff here were the tools and trappings of his trade, but the harp…it was the focus of his power. He could kill or heal with a song; call the rains or winds to do his bidding; bind a man’s will, soul or heart to him or another…some of the greatest…” Again Methos paused as if to search his vocabulary before settling on another inefficient definition, “…spells this world has seen were worked through this harp, and the harp remembers.”

“The harp remembers,” Joe repeated, not even trying to mask his cynicism.

“It was used to transmute will into reality. It is sensitive, receptive and…eager to be of use again.”

“Are you listening to yourself?” Joe questioned.

“I told you that you wouldn’t believe me,” Methos reminded.

“How can I? This is like a fairytale….”

“And where do you think they came from, Joe? This harp is no child’s tale. It is a dangerous weapon and a force to be reckoned with in its own right,” Methos countered. “I hadn’t the nerve to touch the strings until this morning and…”

“And?” Joe pressed.

“Look outside. You walked in through the results. Your pants are still dripping, even as we speak,” the truly terrifying part was that Methos was not joking.

“You’re seriously tellin’ me that you think you’re responsible for the weather?” Joe needed to hear it to believe it.

Methos gave another of those unenthusiastic shrugs and answered, “It seemed a harmless enough experiment.”

“How can you believe something like that? This is the twentieth century, not the dark ages!” And yet, even as he spoke, Joe remembered this morning’s predictions for a perfectly clear day.

“The world isn’t that different now. Take my word for it.”

“I can’t. You want me to believe, you’re gonna have to prove it to me and if you can’t prove it, I want you to promise me that you’ll put all this stuff back from wherever the hell you got it and we’ll try something else. Together,” Joe added that last because he sure as hell wasn’t leaving his friend to devolve into anything crazier than this. He knew he’d been lucky here. There had been religions in the past that had required blood sacrifices for this kind of thing.

“This isn’t a game, Joe. I can’t do parlor tricks on demand,” Methos wearily refused.

“I’m not asking you for any tricks,” Joe responded. “Just somethin’ to convince me that it isn’t time to call the guys with the butterfly nets and the padded rooms, ‘cause to tell you the truth, my friend, you are scarin’ the hell outta me here.”

Methos’ eyes narrowed to slits, no small feat considering how puffy they were. “Put up or shut up, hmmm?”

“If you want to put it that way.” Seeing neither protest nor assent in those unreadable, haggard features, Joe began to relax. Perhaps this lunacy would end now. One glance at the rain gushing over the nearest porthole was enough to make it clear that the storm had no intention of passing anytime soon.

To his consternation, Methos released a deep breath and nodded. “All right. I’ll prove it, but, remember, you asked for it.”

With growing apprehension, Joe watched the ancient Immortal rise from his chair. Methos sidetracked to the kitchen to wash his hands with soap and water…something that he hadn’t done to his clothes in some time from the looks of them. Then Methos walked over to the couch, sat down and picked the small, dark wood harp up from its corner. He rested it against his chest and positioned his fingers on the strings. For a minute Methos simply held the harp in place, sitting there with his eyes closed so long that Dawson began to think that he’d fallen asleep again. Despite the closed eyes, Methos’ expression was anything but tranquil. There was a tension there that was completely inexplicable.

Joe was puzzled. He’d known this man long enough to recognize fear in Methos when he saw it and that was what he was reading beneath his friend’s outer control. A few deep breaths and Methos seemed to make a conscious effort to shake off the emotion. Without opening his eyes, his long, sinuous fingers began to fly over the strings.

The sounds that emerged were…enchanting. Joe Dawson could find no other words for it. He was a musician. He knew good music when he heard it, but this was something more. The song was as simple as the instrument it was played upon. The tune wasn’t more than a dozen notes, repeated over and over again in the same haunting refrain. It should have been dull and repetitive. If Joe had played it on his guitar, the piece would have just laid there, but every time Methos played it, the reverberations seemed to deepen, the song growing in power and volume – which was blatantly impossible on an instrument that simple. There were no sharping levers on this harp, no amps. Sitting fifteen feet away as he was, Joe shouldn’t have been able to hear Methos’ song as anything more than soft background music. But the tones of that nondescript instrument filled the cavernous barge like a symphony orchestra would have, growing in power. The bass strings seemed to vibrate through Dawson’s very bones as Methos plucked them, while the high strings…they shivered through him like a fever, making his blood dance and his heart pound as though he were on the verge of orgasm.

The music was exhilarating and terrifying all at once. Listening to it, Joe had a visceral understanding of Methos’ earlier fear. He didn’t know what the hell was going on here, but Methos was right. This wasn’t about entertainment or music. The very air seemed to be vibrating with energy, the way it would before the lightning bolts of a Quickening took an Immortal.

Methos’ fingers flew in an almost blinding blur. He played that same song for over fifteen minutes straight, and, even though Joe wanted to tell him to stop whatever he was doing, he couldn’t get his vocal chords to work. He was as frozen in place as if the music had turned him to stone, so focused was he on its bewitching tones.

Without altering the notes, the energy raised by the eerie tune seemed to reach some type of crescendo. Dawson heard a boom outside that sounded like thunder, followed by a blinding lightning flash on the other side of the portholes and then…absolute silence as the harp stopped playing.

All Joe could hear was the wild racing of his heart and the harsh sounds of their breathing.

He looked over at Methos. His friend looked limp and drained. His gaze kept moving to the nearest porthole…no rain, no lightning. Even from his seat Joe could see a stunning sunset turning the retreating clouds to a brilliant blend of purple, orange and pink.

His blood seemed to solidify in his veins as his sluggish mind apprehended what those rapidly moving cloudbanks meant. Everything inside Dawson wanted to refute the conclusion he was drawing, but his honesty wouldn’t let him. A cold sweat broke out all over him as he struggled with this new version of reality, a reality where thunderstorms could be invoked and dispersed with a harp song…and a man killed or healed by the will of the person plucking those strings. It was a similar crisis to the one he’d undergone in Nam thirty-some-odd years ago when Ian Bancroft had first told him about Immortals, a situation where everything he’d ever learned insisted that what he was being told couldn’t possibly be true, except he had seen it with his own eyes – there in Nam when Andy Cord rose up from the dead and carried him eighteen miles to a MASH unit and now when another man he’d known just as well changed the weather to suit his mood. In truth, one was no stranger an occurrence than the other. It was what it said about the world as Dawson knew it that was hard to handle.

“Proof enough?” Methos asked into that thrumming silence.

“Christ…” was all Joe could manage as he gaped at Methos. In his scruffy jeans, stained white shirt and shaggy hair, the ancient Immortal looked like a kid at one of those RenFaire Festivals as he sat there cradling that tiny harp to his chest…a kid who’d just changed the weather….

“Easy,” Methos was at his side in an instant, steadying Joe as the room reeled around him.

Without a word, Dawson sagged into the chair Methos thrust under him. Feeling totally out of it, he just stared up at the lines of exhaustion that were etched in Methos’ angular face as his friend bent over him to matter-of-factly take his pulse.

“You’re okay,” Methos breathed out a relieved sigh. “I think it’s just shock…and exhaustion. When was the last time you slept, Joe?”

“More recently than the last time you did,” Joe rallied, dragging his wrist back from Methos’ hand. “I’m all right, okay? Stop fussing.”

Still crouching so that their eyes were level, Methos retreated a few steps and rested his butt on the corner of the coffee table – the only unoccupied space on it at the moment. The move was graceful as a cat’s. Methos never even checked the space before trusting his weight to it, Joe noted.

Dawson stared at the man before him, feeling as though he were seeing him for the very first time, which in a way, he was. There was an unsettling sense of déjà vu to the scene. Methos was wearing that same uncertain expression he’d sported the first time he’d come to see Joe three months after Kronos died at Bordeaux, like Methos wasn’t sure of his welcome and was expecting the worst.

“I’m sorry,” Methos said after a quiet moment in which they simply appraised each other.

“What for?” Joe asked, trying for cool. He was shaken, more shaken than he should be. Even as he tried to process and deal with what he’d just witnessed, there was a part of him wondering where it ended. He’d been interacting with Immortals for so long that the sheer magic of their existence had become muted in his mind. Joe had come to view them as a different breed of humans, the rules that governed their existence strange, but as clearly defined as those of his own. But what he’d just seen…his drinking buddy had just tampered with the weather. Even the expanded reality of a Watcher wasn’t sophisticated enough to handle that in stride. The rules of the universe as he knew it were forever changed again. If Methos could manifest a storm and disperse it with a song, could he do all that other stuff wizards were reputed to do as well? Methos had already stated that what he did could heal or kill. Joe couldn’t help but wonder what else was possible. Was every piece of fiction going to turn out to be fact?

“Losing my patience. I shouldn’t have done that,” Methos said, his bloodshot gaze moving almost nervously to the nearest porthole as though he, too, were freaked out by what he’d just wrought.

“Why not? If you can--”

Quite out of character, Methos cut him off, “There is much I can do, Joe. That doesn’t mean I should.”

“Huh? This is incredible. Why wouldn’t you wanta…if you can do something like that, how could you just walk away from it? I don’t get it. Most people would give their right arm to be ableta--”

“Able to – what? Change the world to suit one’s whimsy? Force one’s will upon those too weak to defend themselves? I’ve been there and done that, Joe. I know how I respond to absolute power,” Methos reminded.

“Then why’d ya learn in the first place if you didn’t want to use that kinda power?” Joe asked, just not getting this.

“Why did Duncan follow Darius’ teachings? Someone older and far wiser was trying to make the world a better place.”

“So what changed that?” Dawson asked, still confused.

“Darius’ sword at the gates of Paris,” Methos replied, the blanking of his features telling Joe how much that loss still hurt his friend. His confusion must have been obvious for Methos continued in a softer tone, “I didn’t have his wisdom, Joe. If I’d continued along this path without his goodness to guide me, the results would have been catastrophic.”

“But you’re using his teachings now to find Mac?” Joe questioned.

“As much as I dare.”

“If you can call up a rainstorm…couldn’t you just call Mac back to you the same way?” Joe suggested. He wasn’t sure how this magic stuff worked, but it seemed the most obvious approach. It certainly beat the cat toy Methos was playing with when he’d walked in tonight.

“I considered that,” Methos answered. His gaze moved to the harp that was now resting safely in the corner of the couch and skittered quickly away again. If Joe didn’t know better, he’d swear that Methos was uncomfortable having the harp in the same room with him.

“So, why don’t you--”

“Because I’m not sure what I’d call to me, Joe,” Methos snapped. Standing suddenly, Methos moved to the galley. Joe watched as his friend stopped at the sink for a tall glass of tap water, which he instantly drank down.

“What do you mean you don’t know what you’d call to you?” Joe asked, trying to keep his imagination in check.

“Fast fixes are dangerous, Joe. I’ve seen what happens when desperation overrules common sense.”

“What are you talking about? If you can get MacLeod back….”

Methos sighed. “When I was studying with Myrddid, he had another apprentice. His name was Averlin. Averlin had grown up with one of the king’s champions, a warrior named Gareth. Even though they followed totally different paths, Gareth and Averlin maintained their friendship, despite the problems it caused them both at court. Gareth fell in battle one day, but his body wasn’t recovered after the fray. Averlin was…he was broken by the loss, Joe. He couldn’t accept that Gareth was dead and would never return --” Methos broke off and gave a humorless laugh, “Sounds familiar – doesn’t it? At any rate, the weeks passed and Gareth never came home. Finally, unable to bear the loss a second longer, Averlin took his harp, violated Myrddid’s direct command and did precisely what you suggested - he called Gareth back to him.”

Joe knew there had to be more to this. “So what went wrong? Didn’t Gareth return?”

“Oh, he returned all right. At dawn the next morning Gareth showed up at the castle gate. He was glowing with good health and humor, joking about how he’d gotten lost in the woods for nearly a month. He’d never looked better. The entire court was ecstatic, with three notable exceptions.”

“Those were?” Joe asked.

“Myrddid, myself, and Averlin.”

“But…why?”

“At first I thought Myrddid angry because Averlin violated his orders,” Methos said. “Once Gareth came back, our master met with him once, then took to his chambers and avoided everyone.”

“And why were you unhappy?” Joe questioned.

“Gareth was mortal when he rode out to battle on that fatal day, but the Gareth that returned at Averlin’s bidding…I could sense him, Joe. Not the same way I would another Immortal or even a latent Immortal, but there was something in his presence that…wasn’t right,” Methos explained.

“How is that possible?” Joe asked.

Methos shrugged. “I didn’t know. All I knew was he wasn’t the same Gareth whom I used to go drinking with. Something was subtlely off. The man who returned to us laughed with Gareth’s laugh, had all of Gareth’s mannerisms, but there was still something alien about him. Averlin felt that difference far more acutely than ever I did. He avoided his old friend like the plague…and Gareth never made any attempts to lessen the distance. Averlin stopped his studies with Myrddid soon after Gareth’s return.”

“Did you ever find out what changed Gareth?”

“When he eventually emerged from his tower, I asked Myrddid why I found Gareth so different since his return,” Methos’ smile was soft and strangely exacerbated. “Myrddid would have done Socrates proud. All he said was, ‘You find Gareth different because the soul who sups with us is not Gareth.’”

“That was all he said?” Joe questioned.

Methos gave a slow nod. “My next question was, of course, where Gareth was, if this wasn’t him. To which Myrddid replied, ‘Dead in his grave.’”

“And when you asked who this Gareth ringer was?” Joe cut to the chase, telling himself that the shiver that passed through him had more to do with his damp clothing than the eerie anecdote Methos was relating.

“All Myrddid did was shrug and say, ‘One of the Sidhe in all probability.’”

“The what?” Joe blinked.

“The beings that the fairy stories were based on.”

Dawson bit back his knee-jerk, get real response. Trying to say it without a smile, he asked, “You’re tellin’ me you’ve met fairies?”

Methos sighed. “I don’t know what that thing was that Averlin called up, but it wasn’t Gareth. It…gave me the creeps, if you must know. I tried to talk to it, but it avoided me the same way it did Averlin and Myrddid.”

“So did you expose the imposter?” Joe asked.

“I wanted to, but Myrddid wouldn’t let me.”

“What?” Joe gaped. “Why not?”

“For the same reason Darius would have kept silent. Myrddid said that its kind were fading, that the poor thing was desperate for a foothold in this realm. He insisted that the creature was no threat to us and reminded me that it wasn’t so different than we Immortals were, hiding among mortals, concealing our natures. So…I followed my master’s bidding and did nothing,” Methos said.

“And what happened?” Joe questioned, expecting to hear that the doppelganger had killed everyone in their beds one night.

“Nothing, immediately,” Methos answered. “A year to the day that Gareth had been lost in battle, we found Averlin dead by his own hand.”

“And the other Gareth?” Joe asked, prepared for anything.

Methos’ response was almost anti-climatic, “Gone, like a wind. The sentries never opened the gates for him. Gareth just vanished from the keep like the morning dew.”

“I don’t get it,” Joe admitted, creeped out by the tale.

“Neither did I, but…it taught me a lesson, Joe. Intent and focus are everything in these arts. When you aren’t specific…unexpected things happen. I’m not going to make Averlin’s mistake.”

“So what are you goin’ta do?” Joe asked.

“Go search Arronville again and then--”

They both jumped as the phone blared. It had been so long since the barge’s phone rang that they both stared at each other as if they’d never heard the sound before.

“It’s probably just Amanda,” Joe said. Amanda, the Vallicourts, Kit, Grace, Marcus and a host of the Highlander’s other friends had been tying up the barge’s phone so much those first few months after the abduction that Inspector Lebrun had asked Methos to request that they limit their inquiries. But as the months passed and MacLeod never surfaced, the calls dropped off. Lebrun had removed his bug at the end of April and by July, the barge’s phone hardly rang at all as Mac’s other Immortal friends dealt with their loss and moved on. Nowadays, only Amanda called with any regularity, and as far as Joe knew, it had been a good six weeks since Methos or he had heard from her.

“You’re right. She’s about due,” Methos agreed, rising wearily from the coffee table to answer the phone, which was over at Mac’s desk, sharing its space with three foot-high piles of dusty books.

“You want me to talk to her?” Dawson offered. In some ways, this was the worst part, having to tell the people who cared about Mac over and over again that there had been no word.

“No, it’s okay, Joe. I’ll handle it,” Methos gave a tired smile and picked up the receiver.

Looking at him, Joe didn’t think his friend could handle much more. He wished that he could talk Methos out of their trip up north, but knew better. It had meant so much to the other man that he’d have some company on his search that Joe didn’t have the heart to disappoint him. At least it had stopped raining, Joe thought, shaking his head at the incredible turn the night had taken.

“Hello. Duncan MacLeod’s residence,” Methos answered, his sleek voice sounding very much like a paid service in its professionalism. “Can I help you?”

His attention drifting, Joe looked back at the harp on the couch end. He was tempted to pick it up and fiddle with it, but he knew that would only upset Methos…and violate the unspoken trust Methos had given him. Joe didn’t need to have it spelt out to him how deep a secret the confidence Methos had shared with him was. Perhaps the deepest honor of all was the fact that Methos hadn’t even asked for his silence. So, instead of satisfying his curiosity and meddling with matters best left untouched, he just sat there and stared at the instrument, trying to resign its unremarkable appearance with its truly amazing abilities.

His peripheral vision caught sight of Methos suddenly stiffening, the Immortal’s body seeming to turn to stone as he voiced a tense, “Yes.” A long pause followed in which Methos just listened before he spoke again, “Yes, I know the place. I’ll need some assurance that the article is…intact.”

Joe’s heart caught in his throat as he interpreted what those strained words meant. The article in question had to be MacLeod. Methos had to be speaking to the kidnappers. After eight, goddamn months the bastards finally got around to calling them. Joe’s fury was seconded only to his concern over what shape Mac would be in after so long a captivity.

“I see,” Methos said after another brief interval. “No, I still want it back. I’ll be there in an hour. Yes, I’ll come alone.”

Another kind of man would have made a threat at that point – hell, Duncan MacLeod would have made one – but Methos merely hung up the phone. The ancient Immortal just stood there bent over the desk for the longest time. Finally, Methos straightened and murmured, “And so it begins.”

“That was them,” Joe said as Methos turned back towards the living room. There was no need to specify what them. That was the only call that had been on either of their minds since February.

Methos nodded.

“Who is this sick bastard?” Joe demanded. “What kind of monster makes people wait eight months before contacting them? He did say he who he was – didn’t he?” Joe checked.

“He didn’t have to give his name,” Methos said. “It was Alexander Longford.”

“What? He’s had Mac all this time?” Dawson couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“So he claims,” Methos replied, sounding totally dead. “I have no reason to doubt his word.”

“But…I’ve kept tabs on both him and Cassandra this entire year. He hasn’t been to the Continent once since February, let alone France. I’ve gotten daily reports, Methos. I swear, the bastard’s been nowhere near Paris since he faced you in January! His Watcher filed a report this morning that Longford flew over here on company business, but…it’s the first time since January.”

“It’s all right, Joe. There’s no way his Watcher could have known. A man with his financial empire doesn’t need to dirty his hands personally. All it would take was a single phone call or email and the details would be arranged,” Methos said.

“So what are you gonna do?”

Methos shrugged. “Meet him, of course. I’ll keep my promise to you, Joe. No matter what it takes, I’ll get Duncan back alive.”

Joe couldn’t help but ask, “D-did you speak to Mac?”

Methos gave a slow, negative shake of his head, “Longford said he was indisposed at the moment.”

A chill passed through Joe at the quaint wording, “What the hell do you think that means? You-you think he’s still alive?”

“He’s alive,” Methos answered, without any trace of doubt. “He’s…probably not in any condition to come to the phone at the moment.”

Abruptly recalling what Methos had told him about seeing Mac buried alive, Joe bit his lip to keep in his next comment. Methos was going out of his way to spare his feelings. There was no reason he should make it any harder on the poor guy.

Methos continued with, “Don’t worry, Joe. Our kind are hard to kill. If he’s alive, he will heal. Duncan MacLeod is the most resilient spirit I’ve ever met. I have to go now.”

“I’m going with you,” Joe insisted in a tone that would brook no argument.

“I’m sorry; that’s not possible. I said alone. I…won’t take any chances with his life. Even for you,” Methos took a deep breath. Joe could see the man framing his next line, choosing each word with extreme care. “If by chance I don’t bring Duncan back tonight, may I ask a favor of you?”

Everything in Joe rebelled at what was being requested of him. Mac was his friend. He had every right to be there. But the desperate need in that exhausted face made him hold his tongue. Methos was stretched so thin at the moment that he didn’t look like he could deal with another conflict.

“Name it,” Dawson said.

The absolute relief in those strained features made him glad he’d chosen to go gently.

“There’s a map on the table over there. Go to the place with the ink star on it. There’s a green warehouse there by the name of Montefiore. Duncan will be there. I – I need to know that you’ll take care of him for me, Joe.”

Joe swallowed hard, his throat so tight he could hardly breathe.

“You’ve got my word on that,” Dawson promised.

His hard-etched features going very soft, Methos replied, “I never needed a promise, Joe. Your word’s always been good here.”

It was like the man was unconsciously rubbing salt on an open wound, for they were both painfully aware that the reverse wasn’t always true. For the longest time after Bordeaux, even after Mac and Methos became involved, Joe had required concrete proof from this man.

“Methos…”

“You’ve been a good friend to both Duncan and me, Joe. Live and grow stronger.”

“This…sounds like goodbye,” Joe choked out.

To his complete despair, Methos didn’t even attempt to snow him. “It might be. I’m…not as good as I was last year and…I won’t do anything to endanger his life. Duncan MacLeod is not going to die because of me.”

“Get this through your thick head, you are not expendable! And you’re not to blame here!” Joe insisted. “Longford--”

His expression very tender, Methos interrupted, “I don’t really have time for this now, Joseph. With luck, I will see you again. But if I don’t, there’s a letter in the top drawer of Mac’s desk with my solicitor’s name and address on it. Please see that it gets to him.” Methos’ gaze strayed to the couch, “And, if it wouldn’t be too great an imposition, would you see that the harp and the rest of this stuff gets to Cassandra?”

Not knowing what else to say, Joe gave a mute nod. He could feel the heat of the tears coursing down his cheeks. Obviously, Methos’ estimation of his own ability to best anyone in a challenge concurred with Dawson’s own.

They stared at each other for a long moment, then Methos shocked him by leaning forward to plant a kiss in the center of his forehead.

“Goodbye, Joe, take care of yourself, my friend.”

Before Joe could find his voice, Methos had turned away. His guts twisting inside him, Dawson watched Methos retrieve MacLeod’s katana from where it had hung on the wall over the hearth since Valentine’s Day. Without another word, Methos hurried to the stairs, slipped Mac’s sword into his long black overcoat’s hidden sheath and left the barge.

Joe listened to those light footsteps cross the deck above and descend the gangplank. The Land Rover’s engine fired up, and then Methos was gone.

For good, in all probability.

Joe irritably wiped the tears from his face and just stood there, not knowing what to do. Ritchie, Mac…and now Methos, all gone from his life. Twenty years ago when he first joined the Watchers, he never would have thought that he’d know an Immortal personally, let alone come to consider them his closest friends. But, however it had happened, that was where he was right now. From the time he’d first taken the assignment, he’d had a special regard for the Highlander. Hell, who wouldn’t? The man was a living, breathing hero. And Adam Pierson…he’d hung with him when he’d thought the Researcher nothing but a college kid, now the oldest Immortal was like family to him…hell, they weren’t like family. They were family. Against their better judgment, Methos and he had been adopted into the Clan MacLeod.

The one thing watching Duncan MacLeod for the better part of his adult life had taught him was that a man didn’t sit safe when a Clansman was in danger.

Hobbling back to the dining table that was doubling as a sorcerer’s workbench, Joe Dawson stared down his honor. He’d given Methos his word that he wouldn’t interfere – no! – he had given his word that he would take care of Mac, the not-interfere part was an unspoken given. It was a technicality, Joe knew. But Methos had a couple of law degrees; he’d appreciate the distinction. And even if Methos didn’t cut him some slack, the only thing that truly mattered was that he survived.

The pain in his aching stumps momentarily daunted him, making Joe question how much help he could possibly be. The tattered remains of his Watcher’s Oath aside, it wasn’t like he could wade in there and take Longford on himself. Or could he?

Joe’s hand slipped into the pocket of his brown jacket, fingering the revolver he’d carried there since the night MacLeod had been abducted. He’d sworn that he was never going to stand an impotent witness again. If someone came for Methos the way they had Ritchie and Mac, they were going to have to go through him first.

But he couldn’t just go blundering into a challenge blind. He wasn’t fool enough to believe that he could sneak up on anyone unnoticed. If Longford saw him, there was every chance he’d kill Dawson, and if Methos also lost his challenge, there’d be no one there to help Mac – providing the Highlander was still alive. That was one promise Joe had no intention of breaking.

Inspiration coming out of the blue, Joe turned to Mac’s computer. His honor might have gone the way of the dodo bird, but he’d be goddamned if he’d lose another friend to this sadistic bastard. Pausing only long enough to cover all his bases, Joe bent over the keyboard once the software loaded and quickly composed his email.

**********************

Focus, he had to focus, Duncan’s life was depending upon him. As he paused at the top of the ramp above le Porte de Tournelle, waiting for a break in traffic, Methos took a deep breath and tried to compose his jangled nerves. But now that the moment he’d suffered eight long months for was upon him, he couldn’t stop shaking. One way or another, the wait would end tonight.

Finally, there was a lull in the flow of cars and he was able to pull out onto the main road. He’d been to Arronville so many times this year that his car practically knew the way itself. Methos couldn’t even count the number of times he’d searched the area around the Montefiore Warehouse. He still couldn’t imagine where Duncan was buried. He’d all but excavated the small copse of woods along the stream there and searched every inch of ground, both cement covered and earthen. Every time he went, he made sure he walked through the industrial areas as well, on the off chance MacLeod were buried in a cellar, but he’d never been to a place so free of Immortal signatures.

Only now did he begin to wonder if maybe he’d just timed his searches wrong. He usually went in daylight. If Mac were awake and screaming at night…it was entirely possible that MacLeod might have been dead in the daylight hours. Methos cursed his own stupidity. He was accustomed to thinking outside the box; why hadn’t he come at night even once? Or come more frequently?

Of course, MacLeod mightn’t have been held here at all. Longford might have had Mac interred somewhere else and exhumed him for tonight’s Halloween party, but…Methos didn’t doubt his own abilities that much. Every time he’d searched for Mac using the skills Myrddid had taught him he ended up in Arronville. Mac had been there. The Highlander might have been dead every time Methos visited the area, but he’d been there all along.

As his speeding Land Rover ate up the miles, Methos’ thoughts turned to the man who’d caused all this.

Alexander Longford…Twenty-five hundred years might have passed since the Macedonian ruled the world, but the man was obviously still a master strategist. Like all conquerors, Longford knew where to hit an enemy where it hurt the worst, and, Christ, was Methos hurting now.

Eight months. In the scheme of his life, it seemed an insignificant amount of time. If asked, Methos would have said that he could endure anything without breaking for that brief an interval, providing he lived. But now…no torture he had suffered in all those long years had prepared him for the nightly visions of Duncan MacLeod shrieking in his grave. His resiliency had been sapped away after the first three months. Now…he was living on nerves and willpower, stretched so thin he didn’t think he would ever recover, for, when all was said and done, this was his fault.

If it weren’t for Mac’s association with him, none of this would have happened to MacLeod. Ritchie would still be alive; Duncan would be above ground and healthy. As was so often the case, Methos felt that the only thing he’d brought the people he cared the most about was pain and suffering. For the very first time in his life, Methos didn’t think he could live with this kind of guilt, which was strange for a man who’d endured three-thousand years of Death’s sins on his conscience. But the nightmares Death had wrought were impersonal, visited upon strangers. Nothing had ever been more personal to Methos than the living Hell his lover was now enduring.

Even if by some miracle, Mac were to emerge untouched by this incident, Methos didn’t know if he could face his friend. How did you say sorry for 250 days of torture? How did you ask forgiveness for not rescuing MacLeod before his captor tired of the game and finally made contact? How could he ever make up for poor Ritchie Ryan?

He couldn’t, of course. Methos knew that, had known it from the second he’d seen Ryan’s headless body crumpled on the dock.

All he could do now was get Duncan to safety and deal with the fiend who had orchestrated this depravity. The feelings the very thought of Longford raised in him were the only hard things left intact inside him, and they were implacable. He’d keep his promise to Joe. Longford would pay for this. If Methos were too broken by these last eight months to rectify the mistake he’d made last January, then Death surely would.

Before he knew it, he was pulling up the pothole-ridden drive to the warehouse and factory district. There was little traffic down this road these days. Methos remembered a time when the canning factory and paper mill had been thriving businesses, but it had been decades since the buildings were used. The two factories and three warehouses huddled here amongst the overgrown woods just off the banks of the Seine were as forgotten as the men who had built them.

He pulled up beside a sleek new motorcycle that was painfully reminiscent of Ryan’s Kowasaki. Longford’s means of transportation pretty much cinched Methos’ theory that Mac had been here all along.

Methos paused as he stepped out of his car, gazing up at the half-moon overhead. The sky was clear and bright now. Each star stood out against its ebony background like rhinestones on black velvet. The sweet smell of rain was still strong in the air. A chill wind ripped at Methos’ face as he stared up at the blindingly bright orb, silently asking her blessing, not for himself, but for Mac’s sake.

The warehouse he was headed to was as dark as its neighbors. The silver moonlight picked out the faded white letters spelling out Montefiore on the cracked green paint of its nondescript front, tinting them with an eerie glow.

Methos was a hundred yards from the place and already he could feel the signature of an extremely powerful Immortal waiting inside. Longford was nearly as old as he was and had taken far more heads than Methos in the last two millennia, so he had a considerable presence. The deserted industrial park was practically vibrating from their combined signatures. Between them, they had over nine-thousand years of accumulated power. A headhunter would get a hard-on just being in the vicinity of this nondescript warehouse tonight.

Methos took a deep breath and closed his eyes, reaching out from the inside, searching for Mac. All he could feel at first was Longford. The Macedonian’s signature had all the force of a summer thunderstorm. Methos reached for Mac’s familiar crashing waves signature…and came up blank. All he could feel under Longford was a feeble Immortal thread that was so thin it was barely there…the kind of presence an Immortal might carry who’d expended most of his energy dying and reviving for eight months without sustenance ever once passing his lips.

Longford had much to answer for.

After slipping Mac’s katana out of his coat sheath, Methos patted his right pocket, comforted by the bulk of his revolver. His Bowie knife was a reassuring, lumpy weight on the lower right side of his overcoat now that the balancing sword had been removed. As prepared as he was likely to be after eight sleepless months, Methos threaded his way through the dried-out, dead weeds and the cracked cement of the delivery dock. The warehouse door opened soundlessly at his first push.

The inside was pretty much what he expected it to be – a dark cavern of shadows, dust and jagged streaks of silver moonlight filtering in from the broken, grimy windows. Those irregular patches of light were a distraction more than a help. There were abandoned crates stacked throughout the place. The insides had doubtless been looted years ago, but the containers remained, hunching like trolls in the darkness.

Methos weighed his options, and then boldly strolled down the center of the warehouse, allowing that other ancient Immortal signature to guide him to his destination. There was no point in subterfuge. It wasn’t like Immortals had any chance of sneaking up on each other.

He was halfway to the center when a sudden burst of light blinded him. Too vulnerable for comfort, his instincts had him sheltering in the thick shadows of the nearest crates before his mind could react.

“Welcome, Methullius,” Longford’s voice echoed through the warehouse.

It took a few seconds for Methos’ eyes to adjust to the light. When they did, he almost shut them against the sight that awaited him. He’d seen and done much worse in his time, but that was millennia ago when he’d had the stomach for these kinds of games. By contrast to his own misdeeds, this was actually mild, but…Duncan was a pawn in this game and that made everything too intense.

The light source proved to be the headlights on a rusting gold Ford LTD. Methos didn’t have to see the seared paint on it to know that it was the same vehicle Ritchie’s Watcher had seen Mac kidnapped in. After all, how many of those antique LTDs could be left in Paris?

The car lights spotlighted Longford against the pitch backdrop of the dark warehouse, turning his curls to molten gold and the gladius sword in his left hand to quicksilver. He was dressed in black jeans and jacket, so the rest of him blended into the background. He didn’t look as young or small, surrounded by all that darkness. It hid his barely pubescent form, turning Longford into some strange, almost other-worldly figure.

It wasn’t the image Alexander the Great presented that chilled Methos so. It was what Longford’s right hand was attached to that froze his blood. Over a hundred and twenty years had passed since he’d last faced Madame le Guillotine. Methos had hoped never to see one of the monstrous contraptions again, but there it stood, gleaming in ominous, well-oiled efficiency, with its latest victim bound to it, ready for the taking.

Methos stared at the insane tangle of filthy hair on the head sticking out of the stockade, his sense of horror churning his stomach. His brain was telling him that that motionless blob had to be MacLeod, but his heart and soul were screaming, No, please no! He couldn’t even see the face to tell if it were Duncan there. The hair falling over the sides of the wooden stockade and obscuring the features looked like crud-crusted dreadlocks.

Methos’ heart caught in his throat as he stared down at the guillotine’s intended victim. The brown lump looked more like a pile of manure than a human. There was so much dirt and filth on the pinned man that Methos couldn’t even determine what color his clothes had been. He was having the same problem with the prisoner’s flesh. Brown and black were all he could see, but there were places where fish-belly white streaks of skin showed through the obscene muck coating the man’s visible features, or what could be seen of them through the foul shock of his neglected hair. The matted length was darker than MacLeod’s, but if Mac’s hadn’t been washed in a number of months, it could be that black.

The prisoner might have been alive, but he was totally unmoving. His head hung slack at an angle, his neck painfully extended. And the rest of his body…Methos’ skin crawled as he took in the captive’s unnatural, twisted position. Instead of kneeling on the ground, the man’s knees were drawn up tight to his chest in an interrupted fetal position. It almost looked like the captive’s back couldn’t stretch. The man was literally dangling from his neck from the insidious device.

He’d never seen Mac that inanimate, even when sleeping. Duncan MacLeod wasn’t about stillness. Duncan was movement, passion and fire. MacLeod was everything that was good and bright in this world, a noble champion of justice. The Highlander knelt at no man’s feet and yet, there Mac lay like a marionette whose strings had been sliced.

Methos stared at the sadist that had cut those strings. After five-thousand years, Methos was a pretty good judge of character. He could tell by the look on Longford’s face how much the other Immortal would enjoy pulling that lever and beheading MacLeod right in front of him. They both knew that the fact that Methos had agreed to meet Longford at all tonight proved that MacLeod was too important to him.

Methos prayed to every god he knew that he’d be able to get both Mac and himself out of this alive, but the situation didn’t look promising. Madame le Guillotine had added a whole new twist to this horror show. Methos had fully expected MacLeod to be used as a pawn in this game, but somehow, he had never expected this. His ancient enemy was a warrior, not a criminal. Methos had anticipated finding Longford’s sword at Mac’s throat. A well-placed bullet would have dealt with that quite nicely, but were he to shoot Longford now, his fall would doubtless pull the guillotine’s lever and Mac would lose his head. No matter what it took, he was determined that Duncan MacLeod was not going to die because of him.

Methos swallowed hard as he recognized just what it was going to take to get his lover out of here alive.

“Come out. Don’t be shy, Methullius,” Longford called him by the name he’d used in Greece and Rome when Methos had spent decades avoiding his former victim.

There was no avoiding Longford now, nor any true desire to do so. Gazing down at that too-still lump trapped in Mdme. Le Guillotine’s deadly embrace, the Horseman inside Methos wanted to rip the Macedonian’s still-beating heart out of his chest with his bare hands and eat it.

Methos took a couple of steps out of the shadows. He knew it was a useless effort – Mac hadn’t so much as twitched since Methos had laid eyes on him. Still, he had to try, so he hesitantly called, “Duncan?”

There was no reaction, no movement. Were it not for the feeble Immortal signature Methos could still feel below Longford’s overwhelming one, he would have thought the man dead.

“What have you done to him?” Methos demanded, unable to take his eyes off the wreck that once had been Duncan MacLeod.

“Done?” Longford laughed. “I’ve done nothing – absolutely nothing.”

“What do you mean nothing! Look at him!”

Longford did as requested and gazed down at MacLeod. “It’s amazing the changes eight months in a car trunk will wreck on even the most arrogant man’s constitution – isn’t it?”

Methos flinched. Eight months in a car trunk…no water, no food, no light, no room to move…that explained the twisted spine and catatonic state. He’d seen men reduced to this strait before; though rarely an Immortal. Their kind didn’t survive long when rendered defenseless. For that matter, most of the mortals Methos had seen this bad off didn’t recover either.

The realist in Methos ruthlessly appraised the situation. An Immortal’s body might survive that kind of ordeal, but his mind wouldn’t, not intact. Methos had never known anybody trapped with oxygen for that long who made it back to sanity. The longest he’d heard of an Immortal surviving entombed like that was Nefritiri. She had lasted two thousand years in an Egyptian sarcophagus mainly because she hadn’t had sufficient oxygen to revive until the twentieth century grave robbers had broken the original seal on her vault. By contrast, Mac had been alive and conscious the entire time of his captivity. Dying and waking to die again had become the rhythm of his life. A man didn’t recover from something like that…ever.

“Do you still want him back, Methullius? There’s not much left of him,” Longford mocked.

“There’s enough,” Methos grated out.

“You know what I want from you,” Longford said.

Methos gave a slow nod, “To destroy me.” His gaze turned from those hateful blue eyes to the silent Immortal held captive on the guillotine. “You’ve already accomplished that.”

“Not entirely,” Longford shot back.

“In every way that matters. Move away from that switch, Longford. Let’s take this outside…like men,” Methos added the last bit as an afterthought. Such macho posturing hadn’t had any effect on him in years. He didn’t care if his opponents thought him a man or a sniveling coward. All he cared about was keeping his head. But, even though he didn’t practice that behavior anymore, he still understood the psychology of it enough to use it effectively.

“What would you know about fighting like a man?” the Macedonian spat.

“He is not part of what lies between us,” Methos tried to reason, terrified that Longford would pull that lever out of spite.

“He gave you succor. That alone damns him,” Longford shot back.

“What you’ve done to him is punishment enough for any crime…even my own. Leave him out of this and face me,” Methos challenged.

“No. No more challenges. Tonight is about punishment and revenge. I offer you the opportunity to reveal your true colors, Methullius. You get to decide whether he lives or dies. If MacLeod means that much to you, you can trade places with him…or run and allow him to die in your stead,” Longford spelt out the terms Methos had anticipated since he’d gotten that call on the barge.

“If you kill him, I will take your head while you’re down with the Quickening,” Methos promised, playing the only card he had left.

It was an impotent threat. They both knew if Duncan weren’t worth his head, he would never have come here.

“But MacLeod will be dead, and it will be your choice that dooms him. He was so damned sure that you weren’t the same man I knew, but I intend to prove it to you both that you’re still that same selfish, murdering bastard. Have you really changed, or was everything you told MacLeod just another lie? Go ahead and walk. Prove me right.”

“Does your head mean so little to you these days?” Methos questioned. “Step away from that lever and you have a chance of keeping your life.”

“If you kill me now, he dies. I don’t mind watching you squirm every time he crosses your mind for the rest of eternity,” Longford replied. “I offer you a simple trade – your life for his. What’s it going to be, Methullius?”

To his never-ending shame, Methos didn’t have a pat answer on his tongue. He’d spent the last five-thousand years fighting to keep his head on his shoulders. The idea of voluntarily forfeiting it was unthinkable, and, yet, he could see no other way clear here. If he didn’t go along with Longford, Mac would die. And if he did…

Every self-preservation instinct Methos owned was screaming for him to get out of here, to just turn and run. Even in the unlikely event that he could somehow get Mac away from Longford and keep his own head, Methos knew that the chances of bringing Mac back to the world of the living were slim to non-existent. It would be a mercy to take MacLeod’s head at this point.

But Methos’ entire life had been about beating the odds. He also knew how time could heal. Give it a century or two and even this might right itself. And, beyond that, it was Duncan MacLeod lying there. Methos had never had an attachment this strong…or inexplicable. This man had stood by him through revelations that would have damned him with anybody else. The acceptance Mac had given him meant everything to him. And now he was going to have to prove that.

Methos stared at the scenario before him, looking for a way to dispense Longford without killing Mac. Even if he could get his revolver out quickly enough to get off an accurate shot without Longford having time to react, there was every chance the instinctive jerk the body gave upon a bullet’s impact would convulse the hand on the guillotine’s lever. And if he aimed for the hand itself, the same thing would doubtless happen. Methos was well and truly behind the proverbial eight ball. He had two choices – run and live or agree to Longford’s deal.

Life beckoned to him. All he had to do was turn and run…and abandon Mac as he had Byron and every friend ever used as a hostage against him. Five-thousand years of not-risking his head was some pretty stiff conditioning to even try to overcome. But MacLeod had stepped beyond his stringent cultural conditioning for Methos’ sake. Now it was Methos’ turn to do the same.

Duncan MacLeod would not die for loving him. The Highlander would live to grow stronger. And when the Game finally ended, it would be Mac there to see the insane custom die out.

So, his head was forfeit. That was what it all boiled down to. The only thing he could hope to do at this point was wrangle a promise out of Longford to get Mac to Joe’s safekeeping, for, looking at the state Duncan was in, Methos didn’t think Joe would be able to handle moving him alone. Though how the Watcher would protect an incapacitated Immortal boggled the mind.

“Have you made up your mind yet? My hand is growing weary,” that cultured British voice pointed out.

Methos attempted to swallow, but his mouth was dry as sawdust.

“Will you promise to get MacLeod to my friend Joe Dawson on a barge moored at le Porte de Tournelle?” Methos rasped, every muscle in his body freezing in instinctive dread of dying after all these years.

“The bargain is his life. I am not a taxi service,” Longford denied.

Methos gazed down at Mac’s unconscious form. He knew if MacLeod were awake, Mac would be yelling for him to get the hell out of here. Self-sacrifice was such an integral part of his lover’s character that Mac would like nothing more than to die for a friend’s sake. It was not part of Methos’.

Even now, the pragmatist in him was demanding that he cut his losses and run. His death would do nothing to restore MacLeod. The Macedonian had effectively killed them both here. Longford knew as well as he did that MacLeod’s mental damage was such that he might never recover. Mac could very well spend the remainder of eternity an insensible invalid. Methos knew that Dawson would take care of MacLeod for as long as the mortal lived, but…Joe’s lifespan was that of a gerbil when compared to an Immortal. MacLeod could once again fall into this endless suffering of the cycle of rebirth and death…until a headhunter felt him and took his Quickening.

But…where there was life there was hope. Joe would come tomorrow and get Duncan out of here. That’s what he had to concentrate on now, not what would happen in the next few minutes. The letter that Methos had left for his solicitor would more than provide for both Joe and Mac for the next millennia or so – there was no sense keeping his rainy day, emergency resources when he’d have no more days.

Staring down at Mac, Methos couldn’t contain his fury, “Duncan MacLeod was the best of us, Alexander. He didn’t deserve this.”

“He bedded you knowing your crimes against humanity. A truly good and honorable man would have executed you,” Longford answered.

About to question Longford’s honor, Methos held his tongue. Venting his fury at this point would only get Mac killed. And, who knew, maybe Longford was right. Methos knew that were he anyone else, Mac would have taken his head last year during that Kronos business. It was only Mac’s feelings for him that had stayed his blade. Perhaps this was some form of cosmic justice, after all.

“Your time is up. What say you? Does he live or die? It matters not to me which course you choose, only that you make the decision.”

Biting back on his rage, Methos nodded. “All right. My life for his. You spare him and you can have my head.”

Longford actually seemed disappointed. After staring at him for a long moment, Longford ordered, “Drop you sword, coat and shirt on the floor in front of you.”

“My shirt?” Methos questioned.

“I know you too well to trust you, Methullius. There will be no surprises tonight. If you delay any longer, you can add your trousers to the pile as well.”

Cold already just at the thought of removing his coat in this freezing warehouse, Methos dropped his sword to the floor in front of him. He was simmering with too much rage to be afraid right now.

He’d been too distracted of late to do laundry, so he wasn’t wearing underwear. If Longford asked for his pants as well, he’d be meeting his death starkers and that was something he’d prefer to avoid. It had been more than a millennium since he’d knelt naked before a foe. He didn’t intend to die that way, if at all possible.

“Now what?” Methos demanded as his bare chest puckered into goose flesh. He was starting to shiver already, the cold somehow making his imminent demise that much more real to him.

“There are a pair of handcuffs on a crate about ten feet to your right,” Longford said. “Kindly retrieve them.”

Methos looked to his right and saw a silver flash in the center of the crate closest to the Ford’s headlights. Gulping, he crossed through the dust mote blizzard in the glaring spotlights of the car’s headlights and picked the metallic cuffs off the dusty wooden box. The handcuffs were law enforcement, regulation issue quality. There would be no getting out of them.

“Secure them to your right wrist please,” Longford instructed.

Recognizing that this was really going to be the end, Methos took a deep breath and did as ordered.

About to close them over his left wrist as well, Methos stopped dead at the interruption of, “Behind you, please.”

The Macedonian was really taking no chances, Methos acknowledged, and reluctantly reached behind himself to secure the second cuff, effectively eliminating his only hope of overcoming his opponent. He might have managed to win a scuffle with Longford with his hands in front of him, but with them tied behind him his entire balance would be off.

The icy metal against his wrists only increased his shuddering.

“Come,” Longford waved Methos towards him with the sword that would take his head. And still the Macedonian’s left hand firmly gripped the guillotine’s lever. Methos had trusted in his opponent’s honor, but as he slowly approached, he remembered all the times Death had played these games and taken the hostage’s life anyway, just to see the look on the defeated man’s face when his beloved died.

His nerves a jangled wreck, Methos was preternaturally conscious of his surroundings at the moment. Seeing everything as if for the first time, even though he knew it was his last, he took in the stark lighting, the dust motes that danced like stars suspended against the blackness behind them, and the stained, dull floorboards underfoot. Even these unremarkable sights were precious to him. He didn’t want to die; didn’t want his Quickening to go to this sadistic bastard. When Kalas had been hunting him, Methos had been able to bear the thought of dying because he’d chosen the man to whom he would give his Quickening, but to cede all that power to someone like Longford was almost a criminal act in itself.

But Methos had eliminated all his other options at this point. Even if he did decide to bolt, it was doubtful if he’d get very far. He was as committed to this course as it was possible to get.

When he got within ten feet of the guillotine, Methos almost gagged. The stench rising from the man pinned to the device literally brought tears to his eyes. He couldn’t understand how Longford could bear to stand that close for as long as he had. Mac smelt like a cross between a neglected outhouse and the most pungent homeless person.

It only made sense. MacLeod had been locked in a car trunk for eight months without access to hygienic facilities. Although Mac had probably taken in no sustenance since his abduction, his bladder and bowels would have voided repeatedly until empty. Just being this close to the source of the reek made his stomach lurch, and he’d been both Death and doctor.

Methos hadn’t smelt anything this bad since the last time Madame le Guillotine had been in vogue, when the proletariat had filled the Bastille with more nobility than Louis the Fourteenth had hosted at his grandiose balls.

“How far the mighty have fallen, hey?” Longford chuckled, correctly interpreting Methos’ horror at his lover’s state.

Methos had hoped that when he was closer, Mac might look up, that there would be some hint of recognition or even consciousness, but the Highlander’s head hung slack below the guillotine’s blade. Methos stared at the portions of Mac’s face visible through his filthy hair, needing to see his friend one last time, but…even though Mac’s right eye was visible and a bit of his cheek, there was no recognizing Duncan for the man he’d been. MacLeod’s long beard was nearly as unkempt and foul as the hair on his head; while the eye…there was so much muck from daily discharge around it that Methos knew it would take hours of soaking under hot towels to remove enough of the yellow and brown gunk from MacLeod’s cemented together eyelashes to allow the eyelids just to separate. He didn’t even want to think about how sensitive to light Mac would be for a while.

And all this had happened to Duncan because of him. It hurt so much to see this brave and honorable man reduced to this state that Methos almost welcomed death. This was one regret that he knew he couldn’t live with.

When Longford’s order of “Move it!” came, it was almost a relief.

“One moment,” Methos rasped, stepping up to where Mac’s head was secured to the guillotine. His hands bound behind him, Methos crouched down until his face was a couple of inches from that pungent rat’s nest of hair. Although the reek rising from the unconscious man still made him want to vomit as he leaned in close, Methos whispered, “Live and grow stronger, Highlander, and…forgive me…if you can.”

Although everything within him rebelled at the idea of getting any closer to that repugnant collection of bones and flesh that had once been the man he’d loved so dearly, Methos forced himself to bend the rest of the way and deposit a fast kiss to the matted head.

Wrong move, between his own exhaustion and the reek of raw excrement, Methos found his senses reeling as a wave of dizziness all but made him pass out.

“How touching,” Longford sneered.

That got him up but fast. Death ready to take Longford on with his very teeth, Methos straightened and glared at the perpetual adolescent before him. As he did so, a strange sense of virtue settled over him. Methos had spent over twenty-five centuries convinced that he and his brothers were the worst degenerates history had produced, but he’d finally met someone more depraved than Death, perhaps even worse than Kronos. For all their villainy, none of the Horsemen had ever inflicted this kind of malingering pain upon a person. They may have gleefully slaughtered and delighted in drinking their victims’ blood, but they had never walled one of their kind up and left him to suffer alone into eternal insanity like an Immortal Fortunado. Their victims had endured incredible cruelties, true enough, but there wasn’t a one of them that had died alone. And looking at MacLeod, Methos thought that there was something to be said for that.

“I suppose you want me on my knees,” Methos preempted the inevitable order, allowing his contempt to creep into his tone as he moved the last few feet closer. He might die today, but he would do so with dignity. It was his choice and perhaps even his honor to die so that Duncan MacLeod might live.

It was strange that at the moment of his death he would embrace the foolish notions he’d spent the last millennium scoffing at, but seeing how his calm was robbing Longford of all pleasure in this, Methos finally began to understand what motivated MacLeod. When you’d lost the battle and moral ground was the only thing you could hold, there was a certain sense of accomplishment, perhaps even pride, in knowing that your opponent hadn’t been able to rob you of that last victory.

The ancient boards creaked in protest as he knelt on them. Shivering, his kneecaps already starting to ache from the cold hardness they were pressed to, Methos’ gaze strayed to Mac’s ravaged face for one last time and then rose to meet Longford’s.

It pleased Longford to have him kneeling before him, Methos could see it in the other man’s smile as the Macedonian took hold of the hilt of his sword with both hands in preparation of delivering the coupe de grace.

The instant Longford’s left hand left the guillotine lever, something snapped inside Methos. One second, he was kneeling there, none too happy, but resigned to his fate, the next his head was barreling into Longford’s stomach, propelling the smaller man away from the guillotine. How he ended up on his feet so fast with his hands still bound behind his back, Methos didn’t know. His next clear awareness was of spinning way too fast for a man on the verge of physical collapse. His right leg came up, his knee catching Longford in the center of his groin.

With a pained cry, Longford went down like a ton of bricks.

Fighting off dizziness, Methos scrambled around behind Longford. He gave the Macedonian’s curl covered head a resounding kick from behind, then allowed himself to sink down to the dusty floor as well. He could feel the splinters from the rough wood planks of the floor digging into his bare back as the monster inside him pulled his knees tight to his chest, performed a roll that was worthy of Nero’s finest acrobats, then slipped his handcuffed arms up over his butt so that they would be secured in front of him now.

Both Methos and Death were in complete agreement as to what should be their next move. Longford was rising groggily when Methos lowered his cuffed hands over the man’s head, pulled the chain between his wrists tight to the Macedonian’s throat, and then dragged Longford back towards his chest. Longford’s hands ripped frantically at Methos’ hands, wrists and forearms, his nails digging deep into bare flesh, but Methos held on.

It had been many years since Methos strangled a man. The sounds were hard to listen to, even though this was the fiend that had destroyed MacLeod, but somehow Methos found the mettle to follow through with it.

Administering death had been a science to him once. In his long-abandoned, expert opinion, Longford had precisely eighteen seconds of life left, were the noises he was making and the florid color of what Methos could see of his face anything to go by.

Methos was relishing those final seconds one by one when Longford made a desperate move and pulled him forward, even though doing so mangled his already stressed neck. Methos felt the hot gush of blood on his hands as the chain from his cuffs ripped deep into Longford’s neck…seconds before the blade of Longford’s gladius slipped between his own ribs, straight into his left lung.

Methos gasped and tried to hang on, but Longford’s elbow followed the sword, banging him from the other side. Giving a helpless groan, Methos leaned forward to ride out the pain, and Longford slipped clear of his stranglehold in that moment of weakness.

Methos’ depleted body wasn’t able to recover fast enough.

Longford was rolling to his feet as Methos tried to staunch the bleeding at his side.

Longford’s left hand was holding his own wound closed, gripping his bloody throat with that same expression of disbelief he’d worn when Methos had spared him on that footbridge in January, as if, once again, the man were unable to conceive how events had arrived at this point.

“You--j-just—cost—him—his—l-life,” Longford croaked out, turning towards the guillotine.

Methos tried to rally, but his injury was too grave. He could feel the blood filling his lung. He attempted to force his legs up under him, but they wouldn’t go. Nothing was working right. All there was was pain and that sense of fading that always preceded death.

“P-please,” Methos rasped, “do what you want to me, but let him live!”

Longford didn’t even look back at him. The Macedonian reached the guillotine, his bloody hand moved towards the lever and…

And then the thunder of a 38 Special resounded through the warehouse. Longford’s childish body jerked as four bullets caught him dead center in the chest and lifted him off his feet to send him crashing down to the floor nearly six feet away. His own pain-fogged eyes observed the growing scarlet pool around the fallen emperor in utter incomprehension. All Methos could think as he watched the blood bubble up on Longford’s full mouth was that a headhunter had found them and was closing in for a feeding frenzy. And there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it until this lung either healed or he died and revived. The latter seemed the most likely. Methos had suffered enough deaths to know when one was coming on. Only, if he gave in this time, neither Duncan nor he would keep their heads.

Inch by excruciating inch, Methos dragged himself towards where Longford was lying beside the guillotine, his gladius still in hand. Duncan hadn’t moved throughout the entire fight.

He was halfway to the fallen sword when he heard the intruder approach. There was no way he was going to make the weapon in time. Wondering if he had enough energy left to kick the headhunter, Methos paused for a gurgling breath…and only then realized what was missing.

There was no new Immortal signature. All he could feel at the moment was poor Duncan’s feeble thread. He wouldn’t sense Longford’s again until the Macedonian revived.

Methos turned his gaze towards the newcomer, ready for anything…except the sight of Joe Dawson approaching with his slow, shambling gait, a smoking revolver balanced with his walking stick in his left hand. Joe wasn’t quite the cavalry, but he’d do, by God, he’d do.

Methos found a smile from somewhere. “Joe,” he sighed, barely able to speak now.

“You look like hell,” Dawson greeted, his face so ashen that Methos would have thought him the one with the hole in his side. “You about to snuff it?”

Methos bit his lower lip and nodded. Forcing himself, he gasped out, “Longford…”

“I replaced the clip. He so much as twitches, I’ll empty it into him and there’re three more where that came from.”

“Boy s-scout,” Methos grated out, choking in a final breath as the lights went out for him.

When he came around an indeterminate time later, it was to find Joe leaning against the nearby crate, his gun pointed at what looked to be a recently deceased Longford.

“I had to put him down again,” Joe informed, not looking too broken up about that fact.

Methos could hardly blame him. They could barely breathe over the stench of the nearby prisoner.

Methos saw Joe’s anxious gaze turn Mac’s way.

“He’s really bad off –isn’t he?” Dawson questioned.

“Yes,” Methos replied, unable to say more with a sword so close at hand. There was a part of him that wanted very much to go over to Longford once he revived and just start hacking off body pieces the way Kaspian would have done.

“I…didn’t touch Mac. I was afraid I’d trigger the mechanism,” Joe said. “I’ve been calling him, but…he’s really outuv it. What’d that bastard do to him?”

“He left him in that car trunk over there,” Methos related the information as impersonally as he could, even though the very idea still made him want to sink his teeth deep into the flesh that he’d had such lovely vivisection fantasies about a moment ago.

“The whole time?” Dawson gaped.

Methos nodded.

“What are you gonna do now?” Joe asked.

“What I have to,” Methos answered. He could feel the resolve hardening his own face as he pulled himself to his feet.

The first thing he did was walk back to his clothing and pick up his shirt. The fact that he could do so unhindered made him stop and stare at his wrists. The handcuffs were still there, but the chain between them had been snapped.

Lifting his wrists, he turned to Joe and questioned, “Did you…?”

“I shot the chain while you were out. Figured you might need to be mobile.”

“Thanks, Joe.”

Still shaking with the cold, he shouldered his way into his stained white Henley. Able to think past the chattering of his teeth now, Methos retrieved his knife from his coat and returned to where Joe was keeping watch over Longford and MacLeod.

Assured that Dawson was more than capable of dealing with Longford should he revive, Methos moved to examine the guillotine.

“What are you doing?” Joe asked after a few silent minutes when Methos made no move to touch the contraption, but simply shifted his perspective to study the guillotine from yet another angle.

“Making certain it’s not booby-trapped. I don’t want to bring it down by accident,” Methos explained. Everything looked the way he recalled a guillotine looking, but it wasn’t as though he’d ever built or repaired one of the damn things. By the 18th Century, he’d long outgrown his thirst for revenge and blood. To feel those urges stirring inside him again now, after all those centuries of disinterest, was unnerving. He didn’t want to be that person again, didn’t want to feel those sick needs, but just the thought of what Longford had put Duncan through made him thirst for the taste of the Macedonian’s blood…and not figuratively.

Once he was sure that there were no hidden traps Methos finally leaned in to free MacLeod from the device. Just being so close to the foul stench of the filthy captive brought tears to his eyes. When MacLeod’s last restraint was undone and Methos had to physically move his friend, Methos had to swallow down his own vomit. He was sure he must have handled more repulsive things in his five-thousand years of living, but at the moment, Methos couldn’t recall a single one. Mac smelt worse than a cadaver that had been rotting in the sun for three or four weeks. MacLeod’s body was certainly stiff as a corpse. With his hands still handcuffed behind him, there wasn’t any flexibility in the Highlander’s muscles at all.

Once he pried Mac off the guillotine kneeler, Methos couldn’t get his friend out of the fetal ball he was rolled in. MacLeod hung in his arms a complete dead weight. It was like trying to support a six-foot rock. There was no give in the muscles at all. Methos slid to the ground under the unconscious man’s weight. His head was swimming so bad from the stench that he could barely breathe.

The horror of what Mac had suffered hit him again, harder even than the smell. This was his beautiful, articulate lover…and it had all been done to Duncan because of him. Mac might never laugh again, might never love or even hold a conversation…because MacLeod had made the mistake of befriending him. Consumed by that reality, Methos hugged his pungent armload closer and hung his head, squeezing his eyes shut against the wreck in his arms. His entire body was shaking as he fought to contain the scream building within him.

There were levels of guilt. Methos operated on a daily basis with a load that would cripple most men, but to be responsible for this…

Joe had feared him mad these last six months, but he hadn’t come close to what he was experiencing right now. Methos could literally feel his sanity slipping away from him with every foul breath he drew, for he knew in his heart that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men would never put Duncan together again…

<b>“Methos!”</b>

Realizing that this wasn’t the first time he’d heard his name called, Methos raised his head and stared dully in the direction from which the sound had emerged.

Joe was staring at him with such a panicked expression that Methos barely recognized his old friend’s features.

“You’ve gotta pull it together, my friend,” Joe said once their eyes met. “I can’t do this alone. We’ve gotta get Mac outta here and…deal with that.”

Joe gestured towards Longford, who still hadn’t revived.

In this instance, hate was good, for it stirred Methos out of his pool of self-pity. Lifting his head higher, he dragged in a deep breath of the less-tainted air above. Though hardly fresh, the cooler oxygen cleared his head some.

“You with me now?” Joe questioned.

Methos gave a slow nod.

“What do we need to do?” Dawson’s command sense made it clear why he was such an asset to the Watchers that the fanatically strict organization would be able to overlook Joe’s befriending his assignment. The man was good at focusing on the inconsequentials to get past the unbearables. Methos supposed that given Joe’s history, a great deal of the perseverance came from personal experience.

Methos knew what needed doing, and knew that he didn’t want Joe present for it, if for no other reason than for safety’s sake. Methos hadn’t a clue how destructive the Quickening of someone as old as Longford might be to a mortal caught in the crossfire.

“Could you get me a blanket from my car?” Methos forced his vocal chords to work

“A blanket?” Joe blankly repeated.

“Yes. I don’t want to bring him home in these filthy rags,” Methos explained.

Joe’s eyes gentled immediately. “Got it. One blanket coming up.”

Methos waited until Joe had cleared the area before moving. Feeling as though his abused lover would shatter if treated too roughly, he slowly lowered Mac to the hardwood floor. After what he’d been through, MacLeod probably wouldn’t have felt any rough treatment, but there was no way Methos was going to add to the mistreated man’s pain.

He wasn’t lying about not wanting to transport MacLeod in those clothes.

The first thing he did once Mac was settled was use his knife to cut a long two inch strip off the bottom of his own Henley. He hastened to where Longford was lying. With almost vicious glee, he maneuvered the dead man’s arms behind his back and bound them there with the strip off his shirt. It wasn’t exactly a Gordian knot, but it was efficient enough to keep Alexander occupied for a while. And a while was all Methos was going to need.

Once he was sure Longford was secured, he manhandled Mac’s unliving captor onto the guillotine.

Only then did he return his attention back to Mac.

Those clothes definitely had to go. They were the major source of the stench, for all that they were almost rotting off MacLeod.

Kneeling at Mac’s side, he used his knife to slice open the seams of the filthy shirt, jeans briefs and undershirt. He couldn’t hold in the sob when he got his first look at Mac’s body. His lover’s entire right side almost looked like the skin had been flayed off it. At first, Methos didn’t understand the injuries, for there appeared to be dozens of the lesions, but then his medical knowledge kicked in and he realized he was looking at the worst case of pressure sores he’d ever seen. He couldn’t take his horrified gaze off those livid red ruptures. They were oozing both blood and puss, crusted in some areas as Mac’s feeble energy tried to heal them, but on the whole, they were still open and running.

Methos could well imagine the degree of agony Mac had endured while those bruises were forming. He mustn’t have been able to move at all, Methos thought, his stomach twisting in sympathy. For those sores to still be there after repeated deaths and revivals, the weight on that side of Mac’s body must have been unrelieved the entire time he was captured. Methos’ experiences with Kronos had taught him all he ever wanted to know about pressure sores, and, even on Methos’ worst day, when he thought the pain would drive him to madness, he’d had nothing that looked half that bad.

And yet, the realist inside Methos reminded him that it could be worse. Mac could have been dumped into an ocean hand-cuffed, where the flesh would have been repeatedly eaten off his bones by fish and crabs or there could have been carpet beetles in the rug he was wrapped in. Though this was bad, they’d gotten off lucky.

Methos supposed that in some ways, it was a blessing that MacLeod had died of thirst and not starvation, even though dying of thirst resulted in far more deaths than the more drawn out starving did. For all that Mac was a good ten or fifteen pounds lighter, his stomach wasn’t distended as it would have been had he starved to death. It was only water weight Mac had lost, though that was a considerable depletion.

Methos swallowed hard as he took in the thick layer of gray grime coating Mac’s flesh. He hadn’t seen anything like that in at least five-hundred years, back in the days when it was normal to go a year or so between baths. The Roman in him had always found those periods of hygienic negligence the hardest to take, and he knew how fastidious Mac was about personal hygiene. This captivity must have been hell for him in so many ways.

The clothes dispensed with, Methos rolled Mac onto his left side and stared down at the handcuffs that still bound the Highlander’s hands behind his bloody, sore-ridden, brown-smeared, thin butt. He knew those chains must have been the bane of Mac’s existence. With his hands tied behind his back like that, Mac wouldn’t have even been able to scratch, let alone relieve any of the body pressure on those stressed areas. All he’d been able to do was lie in his own filth and go slowly insane.

The condition MacLeod’s wrists were in spoke of his mental plight. Though it was clear Mac had given up actively struggling some time ago and drifted into this coma-like state, the skin around his wrists still bore bright red scar tissue…which told Methos that Mac must have ripped the flesh off clear down to the bone before he gave up fighting. They were just lucky MacLeod hadn’t managed to sever his hands. Methos had seen one or two of their kind do that in desperation, like any trapped beast would gnaw its flesh to get free. Immortals never survived long enough in those cases to regenerate the amputated tissues. Methos knew from the time he’d been castrated that it took centuries for amputated organs to regenerate, and he’d never lost anything as vital as the use of his hands. Thankfully, Mac hadn’t either.

Telling himself over and over that the damages could have been much worse, Methos slipped out of his shirt. Rolling it in a ball, he used the garment to clean the caked excrement from Mac’s butt. Though he knew that Immortals weren’t really susceptible to infections, his years as a doctor had him instinctively starting with those open pressure wounds as he tried to minimize contagion, but they were as coated in offal as the rest of the area.

Sick at heart, he completed the necessary duty and tossed his fouled shirt to the side. It wasn’t great, but Mac was better than before. The stench had diminished to an almost bearable reek…if one hadn’t a delicate stomach and no sense of smell…neither of which Methos could boast.

Sighing, he reached for the cuffs. Even if he’d had something that could be used to pick the lock, Methos decided that the opening was too gunked with excrement to even attempt to force it. In the end, he took Joe’s route. After retrieving his gun, Methos pulled the cuffs as far back from Mac’s body as the Highlander’s limited muscular flexibility would allow, placed the bore to the center link in the chain, aimed away from the front door so that he didn’t hit Joe should the mortal return quicker than expected, and then shot the chain clear.

It was a testament to how long Mac had been bound and the degree of his suffering that Methos couldn’t coax his lover’s shoulders to relax or his arms to fall forward in a more natural, comfortable position. Mac’s hands returned to the small of his back where they’d spent the last eight and a half months resting and his shoulders remained arched backwards as if still being tugged by restraints.

But at least his lover was free of chains and those wretched clothes now.

Though no easier to carry now, Methos managed to move MacLeod from the floor. He tottered over to the guillotine and lowered Mac onto the just-reviving Longford.

Longford emitted the gasp everyone gave when they returned to life and then grunted as Mac’s weight landed on him an instant later.

“What are you….” Longford’s question trailed off as he gazed over his shoulder to take in his situation. Methos saw instant understanding flash in those clear blue eyes. If anything, Longford appeared startled rather than panicked by his imminent death. Methos didn’t know another Immortal who could revive in a guillotine and ask a question with the kind of calmness in his voice that Longford had when he queried, “You don’t want my Quickening for yourself?”

Methos ignored the question. There was too much rage inside of him to even try to be civil. If he delayed here any longer, the demon inside him would come out to play…and there was something in Methos that really wanted to let the Horseman have his way in this – which was why he didn’t dare risk it.

So he paused with his hand on the lever, met that ancient gaze and said with as much control as he could manage, “You should have left MacLeod out of this.”

Then Methos pulled the guillotine’s lever and raced for all that he was worth for the nearest bank of crates.

He could feel the power gathering in the stillness behind him. The first gentle wind caressed his cheek as he sought shelter behind the wooden crates, then all Hell broke loose. The lightning show was nothing short of spectacular. Methos, who had an eye fixed on the top crates in the pile to ensure that they didn’t come tumbling down on his head, could see the bolts shooting down from the cathedral-high ceiling. Then he saw MacLeod’s naked body rise up among those agonizing bolts, the raw power jolting off the Highlander’s skin like rain bouncing off the ground.

Though it had to be one of the most powerful Quickenings Methos had witnessed, Mac never responded to it, which Methos would have believed blatantly impossible. Ignoring a Quickening was like ignoring your pants being on fire. It simply could not be done. But there Mac was, spread out midair like some surreal crucifixion victim, energy bolts that would melt lead crashing into him as he simply hung there mute in the Quickenings’ grasp.

The power surged and grew, the winds becoming gale force as the lightning bolts broadened their strike range. Methos made a hasty retreat as the crate at the top of the pile sheltering him wobbled and moved inwards, crashing down where he’d been seconds later with a resounding boom. Other crates in the room followed suite, the detritus from then raining down in a painful shower.

Methos had been forced to move almost totally to the exit when the energy barrage finally began to wane. Shielding his eyes against the twister of splintered wood and nails pelting him from all sides, Methos watched as Mac floated slowly back to the ground, to be deposited on the floor beside the guillotine with a strange gentleness.

Holding his breath, Methos waited. One of the most common treatments for extreme cases of catatonia was electric shock therapy. Treatment didn’t get much more shocking than the remedy Methos had just prescribed. The energy absorbed in a four-thousand-year-old Quickening should have been enough to jump-start a corpse to life.

But Mac continued to lie there like an abandoned 200 lb. pumpkin.

Sighing, Methos made his way back towards the guillotine. Even from here he could see how its wood and once shining blade had been singed by the energy.

As he walked he could feel the dozens of cuts his bare back and chest had collected in the Quickening heal, leaving his skin spattered with little blood streaks like white-out pocks on a badly typed letter.

MacLeod was lying there in his malodorous splendor. Kneeling beside his friend, Methos softly called, “Mac?” on the off chance that MacLeod couldn’t get his pasted together eyelashes apart, but there was no response. The Highlander was still out for the count.

He could hear Joe making his careful way to his side through the Quickening debris.

“What the hell just happened?” Dawson demanded. “I thought you were going to deal with Longford! When I opened the door, Mac was floating up near the ceiling. You didn’t take him?”

Methos sighed. “I wasn’t the offended party. I thought…”

His gaze turned towards the comatose Immortal. If a four-thousand-year-old Quickening wasn’t enough to bring Mac back to his right mind, Methos hadn’t a clue as to where to go from here. At least the power had healed those pressure sores, Methos noted as he stared down at MacLeod’s filthy, but intact epidermis. Even the scars beneath the handcuffs on Mac’s wrists had closed up. MacLeod’s musculature was still bent and atrophied from disuse, but that wasn’t something that even a super-Quickening was going to cure. Like losing excess fat, only hard work on the Immortal’s part would return muscle tone and flexibility. Methos didn’t know what, if anything, would return sanity.

“Yes?” Joe prompted when Methos fell silent in his explanation.

“I thought Longford’s Quickening might bring Mac around,” Methos finished.

“And?”

“It didn’t work,” Methos testily reported, wondering how long they had before the authorities showed up here. The warehouse was fairly isolated, but the traffic on the nearest highway might have witnessed the light show.

“I can see that. What do we do now?” Joe asked.

“Get Mac home.” Methos said, taking the blanket from Joe’s hands with a muttered thanks.

“And then?” Dawson persisted.

“Then I’ll hook an IV up to him and see if getting some nutrients into his system helps,” Methos thought out loud.

“You don’t sound too hopeful,” Joe observed, knowing him too well to be fooled.

Methos shrugged. “There’s no physical cause for this, Joe. He just took a Quickening that could have kept Paris in lights for a year. He should be conscious.”

“Is it a coma?” Dawson asked.

“Comas have physical causes. This is…psychological, I think.”

“You think?” Joe echoed.

Methos released a slow breath and held onto his temper. Joe wasn’t trying to get on his nerves. They were both worried about Mac…with good reason. “Look, we can talk about this back at the barge, okay? I’d rather not be here if the authorities take an interest in the light show.”

“Yeah,” Joe agreed, his gaze moving to the bisected body on the guillotine. “What about that?”

“Leave it for the rats,” Methos said, grimacing as he tried to secure the blanket around Mac’s curled up form and received another potent blast of Mac’s aroma.

Hefting MacLeod’s unbearably heavy weight up into his arms, Methos started the slow, arduous path back to his Land Rover. He wasn’t up to this physically. His eating habits these last eight months had been deplorable. If Joe hadn’t brought him dinner every day, he wouldn’t have had anything at all. He was paying for it now. He was so depleted, he could barely support his lover’s weight.

“You need a hand with him?” Joe offered, as if reading his mind. The mortal did have the upper body strength to hold onto MacLeod; though how his legless friend would have balanced Mac and his canes was beyond Methos.

Methos gave a mute shake of his head. Now that he had Mac back, nothing was taking him from him ever again. The walk to the car was an unending ordeal, but at least they weren’t interrupted by police lights. It was only as he reached the vehicles that Methos realized that he could have just had Dawson pull his veicle into the warehouse. Joe moved ahead and opened the Land Rover’s backdoor for Methos. So much for hindsight, Methos thought, gasping in relief as he finally lowered Mac to the seat.

“What now?” Joe asked.

“I need you to follow me to a medical supply company on le Rue de Madeline and guard Mac while I go inside,” Methos said. At Joe’s blank expression, he explained, “I’m going to need some equipment and supplies that I don’t have in stock.”

“Right. Do they even have 24 hour medical supply companies?” Joe asked.

Taking a deep breath, Methos gave a negative shake of his head. “No, but I don’t plan on waiting until they open at 10 tomorrow.” Seeing Dawson’s alarmed expression, Methos assured, “Don’t worry, Joe. I’ll leave money for whatever I take.” Seeing no change in those doubting features, Methos added, “I do know what I’m doing.”

“Sure you do. You’re a regular Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Just remember one thing, you get caught, Sundance, and I’m leaving your ass to rot in prison,” the smile that accompanied the warning took the sting out of the words.

Methos snorted and sobered as he remembered how this night would have gone were it not for Joe Dawson’s arrival. “Thanks, Joe…for everything.”

“Don’t mention it,” Dawson reddened. “Come on, let’s blow this pop stand.”

Nodding, Methos gave Joe’s shoulder a fast squeeze, swung up into his Land Rover and turned on the ignition. The air inside reeked from his passenger, the stink so thick, he could barely breathe. Methos hastily rolled down the windows and headed back up the pothole-ridden road.

He would have much preferred to be leaving here with a conscious MacLeod at his side, but a half hour ago, Methos hadn’t thought he’d be getting out of that warehouse at all. He was grateful to have Mac back alive, regardless of his circumstances. His prosaic side wouldn’t allow him to kid himself. He knew they were in for a long, hard haul here, perhaps even decades worth of rehabilitation work, but…where there was life there was hope, and the one thing both he and Mac had to spare was time.

Feeling almost ecstatically elated by the sound of the soft breathing coming from the backseat of his car, Methos turned onto the main road towards Paris, excited by the prospect of trying his hand at petty larceny again. The realist in him reminded him of how he’d been less than successful at his last venture to procure Rebecca’s crystals from Watcher Headquarters, but things were going so well for them tonight that Methos didn’t doubt his luck for a minute. He had Duncan MacLeod at his side again. All would be right with his world once more…in time.

Chuckling as he drew in too deep a breath of the foul air, Methos put the pedal to the metal and let her roll. He knew he wasn’t quite sane any longer, but at least he wasn’t as miserable in his insanity as he’d been this morning. And who knew? Perhaps when Duncan was healed, his sanity might return…or perhaps not. Either way, Methos figured they’d already beaten the odds.

***************************

“Another minute and we’ll have you all cleaned up,” Methos said in a soft, almost crooning voice. It wasn’t exactly the tone one would take with a child, but it was close to it. He still wasn’t sure how much – if anything – was getting through to Mac, but he wanted to make sure his lover knew that he was in a safe environment and that it would be okay to come back.

Hell, it would be more than okay. It had only been a week since they’d finally gotten MacLeod back, and already Methos was aching to hear his friend’s voice, to see Mac laugh, or see Mac do anything of his own volition. But patience and time were the only things that were going to help MacLeod recover, and, stars knew, Methos had plenty of both.

With a gentle smile, Methos pressed the taped side of the adult diaper in place, secured the used one, leaned in to deposit a quick kiss to Mac’s forehead, checked both the nasal-gastro feeding tube and the IV feed, and then eased Mac onto his left side so he could curl back up into the fetal ball the Highlander spent the majority of his time in.

Finally straightening up, Methos arched his back to work the kinks out. He stood there a long moment, simply staring down at his friend, loving the fact that MacLeod was back in his own bed. The physical mementos of the ravages Mac had suffered these last eight months were vanished now. Getting rid of that unkempt beard had been no hardship for Methos, but he sorely missed his lover’s long, luxurious hair. By necessity, the Highlander’s hair was shorter than it had been in decades. Methos had been forced to hack everything past Mac’s ears off just to get his friend clean. But now that Duncan was clean and safe… he looked very much himself again – a bit thinner, perhaps, and much paler, but definitely himself.

His comatose self, Methos silently amended, wishing to every god he knew that Mac would roll over and complain about how hot Methos was keeping the barge or how dim the bedroom was in deference to those light-sensitive eyes that had yet to open of their own volition or get up and use the facilities or turn over and pull Methos down into the bed with him…that’s what Methos longed for most, to feel MacLeod’s furnace-hot heat covering him as Mac moved over and into him….

Time, everything would happen in its own time, Methos reminded himself. All he had to do was wait. He’d waited his entire life to find this man. He could hold out for a few weeks or decades more.

Releasing a slow breath, Methos pushed his own shaggy hair clear of his eyes, picked up the soiled diaper and moved towards the galley. He could feel Joe’s disapproval from ten feet away as he dumped his burden in the trash. With a weary sigh, he moved to the sink to wash his hands and headed for the coffee maker.

“You want a refill?” Methos asked, praying that Dawson wouldn’t voice the things Methos had seen brewing in his eyes these last six days.

Being MacLeod’s Watcher all these years had spoiled Joe. Dawson was used to his hero taking a licking and keeping on ticking, but some things not even the strongest of their kind could rise above. Every man and Immortal had their breaking point, even Duncan MacLeod. No mortal could truly appreciate what Mac had been through, because the dying and rebirth were all magic to them – they couldn’t comprehend how painful and real each and every death was, no matter that the Immortal would get up and walk away from it later. The kind of Hell Mac had been through, no one just walked away from. It would have been far more humane had it been a mortal Longford left locked in that trunk, for there would have been a very finite limit on the amount of suffering that would be endured. Faced with an eternity of endless death by deprivation, Mac had done the only sensible thing and retreated so far into himself that nothing the outside world threw at him could penetrate anymore.

“No…thanks,” Joe answered his coffee offer.

Methos could feel that expressive gaze digging into him as he added his milk and sugar to his mug. He could almost hear his friend searching for the right way to say what was on his mind as he took his seat across from Dawson at the dining table.

At least there was room to put his cup down now that he’d cleared away Myrddid’s stuff and all his books. The only thing left from that desperate period was the harp sitting beside the hearth. Methos hadn’t gotten up the nerve to try it yet, but if Mac didn’t show some improvement soon, he might give it a shot.

“So, how long you gonna play nursemaid?” Joe finally asked.

Wishing there was a way around this conversation, Methos shrugged and gave a definitive, “As long as it takes.”

“He’s Immortal. That could be a very long time,” Joe reminded.

“I’ve got the time,” Methos soothed. “You want some coffee cake?”

“No,” Joe snapped, “I don’t want some coffee cake. I want you to see sense. There’s been no improvement whatsoever.”

“He’s put on four pounds and is eating-”

“You’re tube-feeding him,” Joe corrected.

“He’s still in shock. It’s going to be a while before he recovers.”

“Don’t bullshit me, man. I was in ‘Nam. I’ve seen guys like this. They don’t come back – not ever,” those words didn’t come easy to Joe. Methos could see how much it ripped Dawson’s heart out to voice a truth they both knew better than their own names.

“So what do you suggest I do, Joe?” Methos calmly questioned, hoping that if Joe faced the only alternative to what Methos was doing here, this conversation would end.

But Dawson had obviously come prepared today. There were no evasions or convenient dropping of topics. Joe looked him straight in the eye and gave the argument Methos had been dreading, “Mac wouldn’t want to live like this. You know he wouldn’t.”

“I know no such thing,” Methos replied, staring the mortal down. “It has been one week since we recovered him. For the thirty-four weeks before that, he was imprisoned in a space so confined that he couldn’t even turn over. He has died over a hundred times this year. His reality was so unbearable that he retreated deep into his own mind to protect himself from it. It’s going to take a while before Mac realizes that he doesn’t have to hide away anymore.”

“What if he never realizes it?” Joe challenged. “You gonna spend the rest of your life changing a human vegetable’s diapers? Methos, the Mac we knew is gone-”

“He’s not gone,” Methos insisted.

“I pinched his hand really hard this morning while you were in the can…just to see what he’d do. There was no reaction at all, man. He just laid there like he couldn’t even feel it. His expression never even changed.”

Methos sighed and tried again, “Joe, he trained himself to ignore thirsting to death, oozing pressure sores all over his body and atrophying muscles. Your little pinch was nothing compared to that.”

“So what will bring him around? A Quickening didn’t do it. Neither have all the drugs you’ve been pumping into him.”

Methos tried not to respond to the list of depressing failures, but it was hard. The fact was he was running out of viable options. “Some of those drugs take a while to kick in, Joe. Their effects are cumulative.”

“On an Immortal?” Joe challenged.

They both knew that Immortals didn’t require those kinds of remedies. Whatever was wrong with Duncan, its source wasn’t physical. They were blazing new territory here with the use of psychotropic drugs on an Immortal.

Methos ignored the question, stressing, “We just have to give it time, Joe.”

“Methos, I know how much you care about Mac, how much you want him to recover, but…”

“It isn’t just about what I want,” Methos cut in before Joe could suggest the euthanasia option that was the bottom line of this conversation. “Duncan MacLeod is too important to lose.”

“Huh?” Joe blinked, visibly not understanding Methos’ last argument. “No offense, but important to what?”

Methos stared at his friend. The man had been watching Immortals for his entire adult life. It was startling that he wasn’t following Methos, but then, Joe’s focus was on his comatose friend, not the fate of mankind. It took three or four millennia for even Immortals to start thinking along those parameters.

“Important to the Game. If our kind is going to play out this stupid farce, then Duncan MacLeod is going to be the One left at the end of the Gathering,” Methos explained, wishing that Joe would stop looking at him like he was a few cards short of a full deck.

“What do you mean stupid farce? Those are the rules your people have lived and died by since the first Immortal showed up,” Joe said.

“Are they?” Methos quietly challenged. “I didn’t hear those rules or mention of the Game until long after my days with the Horsemen. That was only three thousand years ago. Before that…we knew we were different from mortals, but we weren’t practicing genocide.”

“What are you saying?” He’d really thrown Joe with that little ditty, Methos could see how unnerved his friend was.

“Just that talk of the Gathering, the Game and all these bloody rules of combat showed up about the time the world was consumed with religious fervor. In a time when everyone was searching for the one true god or one true path, suddenly, there were a bunch of Immortals going around saying there could be only one and hunting heads.”

“So you’re sayin’ it’s not for real then? Joe asked, looking as totally lost as any man would when the basic premises of his existence were challenged. Joe had as much invested in the Game as most Immortals did.

Methos shrugged. “I don’t know if it’s for real. I don’t even know if that matters.”

“What do you mean you don’t know if it matters? If it’s not true…?”

“Everyone is playing that game, Joe. It doesn’t matter if the belief system is right or wrong. You saw what happened to the other Methos when he refused to play by their rules.”

“My God…you mean you’ve known this for thousands of years and said nothing?” Joe was totally scandalized.

“What could I have said? The other Methos spent over a hundred years insisting that we didn’t have to play. Every Immortal who bought into his give-peace-a-chance rap lost their head. You can’t change human nature. Men like to kill. If they didn’t, this stupid game would never have lasted.” Made guilty by the sick expression in Dawson’s face, Methos added, “And I might be wrong, Joe. It’s possible the whole thing is right and I just missed the boat, was in the wrong place to receive whatever enlightenment started the Game. But, if the Game is right and there can be only one Immortal left at the end, then I’m going to make damn sure that Duncan MacLeod is there that day.”

“You’re kiddin’ me, right?” Dawson questioned.

Methos took a bite of his coffee cake, washed it down with a deep sip of his sweet coffee and answered, “No, Joe, I’m entirely serious.”

“You’re tellin’ me that you’re choosing the winner of the Game?” Joe checked.

“Why not me? I’ve seen and taken more Immortals than the Watchers ever heard of. I thought the winner might be Darius for a while, but even if he’d lived, he wouldn’t have made the grade.”

That got Dawson’s full attention, the way any reference to his beloved teacher would have with MacLeod. “You think Mac’s a superior candidate to Darius?”

Though Methos had been very impressed with the priest himself, he didn’t get how men who’d never met Darius could respond this way. Of course, Joe had heard enough about the hallowed St. Darius from Mac over the years to feel as if he’d known the man. So, with that thought in mind, he answered simply, “Yes.”

“Look, I think Mac’s a great guy, but Darius-”

“Was an Immortal who refused to step off holy ground. Darius stood safe behind his sanctuary gates and watched one of his closest friends die rather than risk his head defending him. Mac would never have done that,” Methos explained.

“That’s a pretty tough judgment call,” Joe complained.

“Is it? Tell me, Joe, if you could pick and chose, would you want the winner to be someone who never set foot off his sanctuary when the Nazis were taking over his own city or a man who had no hope of winning, but still had the courage to stand alone against the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for the sake of all mankind? I’ve seen us all, Joe, the best and the worst of the Immortals. And Duncan MacLeod is the best of us. He always stands up for justice. He never allows other Immortals to prey on mortals. And he has absolutely no interest in ruling. If this game is real, then for the sake of humanity, the winner can’t be a tyrant. It has to be a beneficent protector like Mac, someone who will let the new ones grow in peace once this bloody game has ended.”

“The new what?” Joe questioned.

“Immortals.”

“But if the game is over, the winner will be the only Immortal left,” Joe argued in a confused manner.

“Will he? What makes you say that?” Methos asked.

“Well…that’s what the legend says, that there can only be one in the end…”

“For the sake of argument, let’s just say that the time comes when one of us actually does manage to murder every other existing Immortal on the planet. He will only be the one until the next crop of Immortals are born and grow to maturity,” Methos explained.

“What do you mean born and grow to maturity?” Joe asked as though it were a totally alien phenomenon and not something the Watchers had been recording for millennia.

“We’re not beamed here from the mother ship full grown, Joe. I’ve seen Immortal babies as young as a few days old. I’ve never witnessed an Immortal birth, but…we have to be born here, somehow. It’s the only thing that makes sense. There are Immortals of all different ages all over the world, on every continent. Nearly every day, another one of us discovers his true nature. And no matter how many of us get killed off in this stupid game, there are new ones to replace them. I don’t see that stopping just because some psychopath manages to kill all of the existing Immortals off. New ones will be born and grow, and unless the Immortal who is left at the end of the game is someone like Mac – a protector of humanity who doesn’t hunt his own kind - the whole bloody thing will start over again.”

“I, ah, never thought of it like that,” Joe said in a hushed tone. “You seriously believe Mac’s winning is the way to end the game?”

“He’s the best hope I’ve seen yet,” Methos answered.

“What about yourself?” Joe quizzed, seeming intrigued with the entire subject.

“What about me?” Methos asked.

“You could be the last Immortal in the game.”

“It could end up that way, if Duncan doesn’t make it, but…I know how I respond to absolute power. I’d prefer not to have that kind of temptation cast my way again. MacLeod…he could do it. He could get all the power and then just walk away and leave the next generation in peace. He’s good enough to end this stupid game forever.”

“He is pretty damn amazing – isn’t he?” Joe said, his fondness for his assignment overshadowing his objectivity in their hypothetical debate.

“I’ve always thought so,” Methos softly admitted, comfortable enough with Joe to allow all the levels he meant those words on to show.

As usual Joe Dawson didn’t disappoint him. His compassion winning out, the grizzled mortal reached across the table to give Methos’ forearm an encouraging squeeze. “I’m sorry. I was way outta line before. I never shoulda said half that stuff to you.”

“No, Joe, you were totally right. That’s the rub of it. You know MacLeod wouldn’t want to live like this. I know he wouldn’t, and somewhere deep inside himself, Mac knows it, too, I’m sure. I just…the alternative is unthinkable. Do you understand?”

The sympathy in those sparkling blue eyes almost finished him.

“I understand. We’ll…get him back,” Joe gruffly lied, doing his best to make it believable.

Too close to the edge, Methos gulped and quickly asked, “You want some of that cake now?”

His expression making it plain that Dawson knew exactly how fragile Methos’ control was at the moment, the Watcher nodded and agreed, “Yeah, sure. That’d be great.”

Joe gave him his privacy while Methos composed himself slicing the crumbling cake. When he returned to the table with two new plates in his hand, Joe silently moved the dish with Methos’ half-finished piece aside and accepted his own.

After a few minutes of quiet munching, Joe said to him, “You know, you’re pretty amazing yourself.”

“What?” Methos couldn’t mask his surprise as he looked up from his coffee cake.

“You’re always goin’ on about watching out for number one first, but…I don’t know another Immortal who ever planned on making sure someone other than himself wins the game,” Joe said.

Methos shrugged, “It’s no big deal, Joe.”

“Isn’t it?”

Methos met those confused eyes and explained, “It’s not as self-sacrificing as you make it sound. I know Mac won’t kill me, not unless I force him to…and I plan to make damn sure I never do anything that stupid.”

“And the fact that you just happen to love him more than life is incidental, huh?” Joe shook his head. “Mac is a damn lucky man.”

Methos refrained from making the natural response to that comment – that if Mac were any luckier, he’d be dead. Joe was just trying to make him feel better. Methos didn’t need to remind Dawson again that none of this would have happened to MacLeod were it not for him. So, instead of bashing Joe for his kindness, Methos offered a lesser truth, “No, I’m the lucky one. We got him back alive. Now all we have to do is get him well again.”

“So what are you going to try next?” Joe questioned. He was a good enough actor to make the question sound hopeful, like he wasn’t the one who had been counseling euthanasia a half hour ago.

“I, ah, want to move him out of Paris,” Methos offered, not sure how Joe would feel about that, “to someplace quieter.”

“What? Amanda and the Valicourts were too much for you to handle in one week?” Joe gave a chuckle.

“You forgot Marcus Constantine."

“I didn’t know he'd been by,” Joe said, sobering.

“Last night, after you left. Marcus got here at nine and stayed until after eleven,” Methos informed.

Joe was no fool. He saw what was troubling Methos immediately. “I didn’t know you knew Marcus.”

“I didn’t. We never ran in the same circles in Rome,” Methos answered.

“Marcus is a good guy, but…” Joe quickly assured.

“Precisely. If he weren’t, there could have been issues. I’d prefer to avoid trouble as long as possible. I think it would be in both our best interests if I were to bring Duncan out to the country for a while.”

“Do you need help finding someplace to stay? I’ve got a coupla Watcher friends in the Rhine country who might be able to – " Joe immediately offered.

“Thanks, but I have a place in mind. I could use the company, though,” Methos confessed.

It was the right thing to say. Joe’s entire face lit up. “Like you gotta ask.”

“I’m going to need to make some arrangements up there before I can transport Mac,” Methos said. “Did Amanda leave yet? I’d really feel more comfortable if there were an Immortal we trusted here to warn you when one of us is near.”

Joe’s face darkened at the mention of Amanda. “She, ah, couldn’t take seeing him like this. She flew back to Seacouver yesterday morning. Her Watcher said she went straight to that detective she’s been seeing.”

Reading the unspoken disapproval, Methos gently reminded, “Joe, Mac told her he was living with me the last time she was here. He’s been missing for nearly a year. Life goes on.”

“You didn’t give up on him,” Dawson dutifully reminded.

“I couldn’t,” Methos admitted. “But she probably wouldn’t have either if they had been together when Mac was abducted. Cut her some slack, Joe. It’s not easy to find reasons to stay alive when someone you’ve been close to for centuries cashes in their chips. She’s handling this the best she can.”

Like Joe, Amanda didn’t believe a recovery possible. She hadn’t said as much, but Methos had seen it in her tearful brown eyes every time she looked at MacLeod. Mac had been a hero to the pair for so long that Amanda and Dawson both forgot that when all was said and done, Duncan MacLeod was only a man. His lifespan was considerably longer than that of his mortal friends, but he wasn’t impervious to pain. He could be hurt and broken like any man.

“You’re very gracious about her bailing on you after all those promises to do anything it took to find him,” Joe said.

Methos stretched his legs out in front of him, checked the clock to make sure he wasn’t scheduled to feed Duncan soon, then quietly confessed, “She never counted on finding him in that state. And…I always expect people to bail when the going gets tough, Joe. It just makes life easier when you’re prepared for it and, on those rare occasions when you encounter a friend like yourself who’s in it for the long haul, it makes it mean all the more.”

Joe blushed like a schoolboy.

“You know, for a sarcastic bastard you have quite a way with words, “ Dawson observed.

“Thanks, I think,” Methos drolly acknowledged. “After lunch I think I’ll….”

Methos froze as an all too familiar awareness came over him.

“What?” Joe asked, looking around the barge.

“You expecting anyone with a long lifeline, Joe?” Methos questioned, his hand reaching for his nearby sword.

To his surprise, Dawson’s features relaxed. “Actually, I am. I meant to tell you earlier, but it slipped my mind.”

“What did?”

Before Joe could answer there was a knock on the barge door.

“Easy there,” Joe counseled as Methos approached the door with sword in hand. “This one’s a friend.”

Irritated with Joe’s manner, Methos pulled the door open, his ill humor fading as he gazed into the calmest, deepest brown eyes he’d ever seen. The woman on Mac’s doorstep had the face of an angel – serene and radiant. No matter what her features, she would have been beautiful just for the light that shone from her. Even in her slightly reserved, school-teacherish gray raincoat, gray slacks suit and high-buttoned pink blouse, with her long brown hair pulled up in a neat bun at the back of her head, there was no hiding her attractiveness. Had Methos’ heart not been given elsewhere, he would have fallen hard for her at that first sight, for, like Mary Shelly and Alexa Bond, she was one of those rare women who came along once every century or so.

Methos recognized her instantly from Watcher records. Grace Chandell. He’d read about Mac’s history with her in the MacLeod Chronicles, of course, but seeing her, Methos couldn’t understand why Mac hadn’t abandoned everything just to be with her. She had that kind of presence. It was little wonder Carlos Sandaras had stalked her for decades.

“Hello,” she said nervously, her gaze moving down to the sword in Methos’ hand. “I, ah, I’m looking for either Duncan MacLeod or a man named Joe Dawson. Are either of them here?”

“Ah, yes, please. Come in…” Methos found his tongue, stepping aside and opening the door wide so she could get past him with the bulky travel bag she held in her left hand. Her right wasn’t even anywhere near the hilt of her sword…if she were even carrying one. The way her gray raincoat was cinched tight at her waist, Methos couldn’t even see where she could store her weapon. She could, of course, have a .22 in her pocket, but her hands were nowhere near them either. She was watching Methos’ sword arm the way any Immortal would in a first contact situation; yet, she was making no move to defend herself.

Lowering his own weapon, Methos instantly apologized and led her inside, “Forgive me. I’m Adam Pierson. I’m a friend to both Duncan MacLeod and Joe Dawson…who is right here….”

Joe seemed just as spellbound by her as Methos was. As the two Immortals entered the barge’s living area, Joe hobbled forward to meet them, as visibly smitten as a teenager.

“Thank you for coming, Ms. Chandell,” Joe greeted.

“It’s Grace, please,” she corrected. “You said in your phone call that Duncan was in some kind of trouble…?”

Methos was stunned by her courage. The last he’d heard, Grace Chandell’s newest practice was in northern California. On the word of a stranger, she’d traveled two thousand miles, entered what could be a trap with an unfamiliar Immortal…all for the sake of Duncan MacLeod. It never ceased to amaze him the degree of loyalty his lover inspired…both in others and himself.

“I’m afraid that’s right,” Joe said. “He’s--”

“In there?” she smiled, looking past them to the unseparated bedroom area where a dark head could be seen bundled beneath the duvet, next to the IV stand that was keeping Mac hydrated.

“Yes,” Methos agreed.

“How did you know to call me?” Grace asked, looking from one of them to the other, her confusion clear.

It was a question that should have been asked before she ever got on the plane that brought her here, Methos thought, his own survival instincts appalled at her lack of caution. Joe knew of her history with MacLeod and her whereabouts from his connection with the Watchers, but that wasn’t a source they could reveal to the lovely Immortal.

Thinking fast, Methos extemporized, “Mac mentioned you a couple of times. He said that you were one of the most talented healers he’d ever met.”

“I looked your name up in his address book the other day,” Joe added with a sincerity that would have fooled even Methos.

“Ah, of course.” Grace’s large doe eyes scanned the barge. “Where is Tessa?”

Methos swallowed. It was a natural enough question for her to ask. The last time Grace Chandell had had any contact with Duncan, the Highlander had been living here on the barge with Tessa Noel.

“I’m afraid Tessa was killed in a street crime over five years ago,” Methos gently informed.

The genuine distress in Grace’s face made him like her all the more. “Oh, poor Duncan. He loved her so deeply. He must be lost without her.”

Methos didn’t know what to say.

To his eternal gratitude, Joe answered with, “When one door closes, another opens.”

Grace was well named. She gave a soft smile that would in no way reveal that she might have had a personal interest in MacLeod’s availability and asked, “He found happiness again?”

“I’ve known him over sixteen years and never seen him happier,” Joe attested.

“I’m glad for him,” Grace said. “We must get him healed so that he can return to her.”

There was another awkward moment in which Joe and he exchanged an uneasy glance, but it was quickly broken when their visitor moved from the living room into the dim bedroom.

Without waiting to be asked, Grace crossed towards the bed, with Methos trailing in her wake like Mary’s little lamb and Joe moving at a much slower pace behind them. He knew nothing more could be done for Duncan medically than he’d already tried, but it never hurt to get a second opinion.

To his surprise, Grace stopped before reaching the bed. After a quick glance over her shoulder, as if to judge whether or not Joe was within hearing range, she softly whispered, “Your friend…how much does he know about us?”

“Everything there is to know,” Methos answered honestly. “Joe’s been Mac’s friend longer than I have.”

“So we can speak freely in front of him then?” Grace checked.

“Joe Dawson is entirely trustworthy,” Methos assured.

“But not deaf,” Joe groused as he joined them.

“Or particularly modest,” Methos added, enjoying their old banter. These past eight months of searching had all but killed his humor. It felt good to be able to joke again, if only for the moment.

“But his good looks more than make up for it,” Grace’s smile was charmingly flirtatious as she squarely met Joe’s gaze.

Methos watched his old friend’s salt and pepper eyebrows rise in surprise before a pleased grin broke out across his face. “A woman of taste.”

Together, they entered the sickroom, all traces of laughter vanishing as the dim lighting reminded them all of the sad circumstances that had prompted the beautiful Immortal’s visit.

“Oh, Duncan,” Grace whispered, sinking down to sit on the tiny space at the edge of the mattress beside the motionless Highlander. Her hand rose to push Mac’s ragged, but squeaky clean, bangs back from his forehead. After staring silently down at his face for a few moments, she reached to take MacLeod’s pulse, then pried one of his eyes open when finished, as Methos did at least a dozen times a day. A second later, she fished a small flashlight out of her purse to make a closer examination. Methos watched in silent approval as she moved on to make a thorough, professional check of her patient. “How long has he been like this?”

“We’ve had him back a week,” Methos reported. “There’s been little change. He’s put on a few pounds. He’s moving a bit, but not much. He took the Quickening of the man responsible for this – a four-thousand year old – and it had no effect. I’ve treated him with a series of benzodiazipines…ditto.”

“You’re a doctor?” Grace asked.

“For several hundred years,” Methos replied.

“Did you insert the NG Tube?” Grace questioned, eyeing the thin, orangish plastic tube trailing from MacLeod’s left nostril.

Methos nodded.

“You managed without an X-Ray to check that you hit the stomach and not the lung?” she seemed impressed – with good reason. Though working with an Immortal patient made the results of a misplaced feeding tube far less lethal, no one wanted to inflict unnecessary pain and discomfort on their patient. The last thing Mac would have needed after all he’d been through was to drown in food.

“I’ve been doing it a long time,” he shrugged. “It’s like riding a bike. Once you learn, you don’t forget.”

“You’re not catheterizing him?” she observed, her surprise evident.

Methos experienced the same uneasiness he’d felt when Joe had asked that question a week ago. “I know it’s a small thing, but…Duncan withdrew from reality to hide from pain. I’ve tried to minimize his discomfort in the hopes that it might speed his return. Since he’s Immortal, there won’t be any tissue degeneration or irritation if I forego the catheter. I…don’t mind changing him. It gives me something to do besides brood.”

She gave a slow nod, then asked, “The benzodiazipines had no effect?”

“None. He’s been comatose for over a week now,” Methos gave the discouraging report.

“Have you tried barbiturates?” she questioned.

“Yesterday. They, too, were useless. He’s impervious to pain, noise, light, and heat,” Methos relayed.

“That’s not good,” Grace said.

Were the situation not so goddamned serious, her understatement might have made Methos laugh. As it was, he just nodded his assent.

After a quiet moment, she asked, “What are you going to try next?”

“We were sorta hoping that you’d have some suggestions,” Joe entered the conversation, revealing his true reason for contacting her.

Another man might have been insulted by Dawson’s lack of faith in his abilities, but at this point Methos would accept help from wherever it came.

Her eyes softened. “I’m sorry, Joe. Your friend here has already done everything I could suggest. This is…a little out of my area of expertise. I mostly work on the research side of medicine these days.”

“Oh,” Joe couldn’t quite hide his disappointment. “I brought you all this way for nothing then. I’m sorry.”

“Hardly for nothing,” Grace corrected. “I can at least help you care for him for a time.”

“Actually, we could use your help with something else as well,” Methos said, finally seeing a way clear of the legal nightmare MacLeod’s sudden reappearance would create were the authorities to discover his return before Methos and Joe reported it.

“I’ll do anything I can to help Duncan. You need only name what you need done,” Grace instantly assured with an earnestness that made even a pessimist like Methos believe in her.

Liking this woman way too much, Methos briefly detailed the circumstances surrounding MacLeod’s abduction and the means by which they’d gotten him back. He offered her an extremely edited version, skipping over his sexual involvement with Mac and the fact that his friend wouldn’t have been taken at all were it not for his association with Methos.

“I can see where you felt you had to report him missing,” Grace said when he finished, her words reassuring a need inside him that Methos hadn’t even known he felt. “The police surely would have blamed Duncan for his student’s death, otherwise.”

Methos nodded, “Yes, but, now I need to report him found so that he can reclaim his life when he is able, only…”

“Only you were a witness in his abduction investigation, so it would be too suspicious for you to sign the medical report that will document him as unfit for questioning?” Grace suggested.

“Both beautiful and brilliant,” Methos approved.

“I can help with that,” Grace smiled, once she stopped blushing. “My license is current and background unquestionable…thanks to Duncan here, so there shouldn’t be any problems with the authorities.” Her gaze turned back to the Highlander. She had the same crushed expression in her eyes that Amanda had worn every time she tried to call Duncan back to consciousness, like it hurt too much to see Mac this way to stay too long.

“You must be tired from your trip,” Joe said, seeming to sense her pain. “Can I get you anything?”

“Some coffee, perhaps?” Grace asked.

“Of course. No,” Dawson said as Methos started for the kitchen, “I’ll get it. How do you like it?”

“Light, with sugar, please. Thank you, Joe.”

“It’s my pleasure,” Dawson assured.

“I’ve never seen him so still,” Grace whispered after another quiet moment of watching MacLeod.

“I know. It takes some getting used to,” Methos agreed. “You knew him well, then?”

From his time with the Watchers, Methos was fully aware of how important Grace Chandell had been to MacLeod a century or so ago, but that type of knowledge wasn’t something a casual friend would know about. For all that Methos knew more about the details of Grace Chandell’s life than she probably did herself, he had to maintain the façade of ignorance. There wouldn’t have been any reason for MacLeod to have done anything but casually mention an ex-lover to a male friend, so to avoid suspicion, Methos had to make small talk about facts he already knew.

“We had our moment,” Grace smiled fondly down at the unconscious Highlander, “and a fine moment it was. But we made better friends than lovers. You know how it goes.”

Methos nodded, pretending not to hear the regret in her voice. He understood precisely what she meant. Duncan MacLeod was a hard man to live with at times, but he was a harder man to lose.

Seeming to force herself out of the shadow that had touched her, Grace’s gaze moved from Mac to him. “Have you known Duncan long?”

“A few years,” Methos answered, moving to check that the IV drip was still working. That put his side to Grace and shielded most of his face.

“You must be very good friends,” Grace observed.

Methos’ pulse quickened as he once again found himself in one of those awkward situations where he was facing someone who had known and loved MacLeod for centuries. His own claim was so new and tenuous that he didn’t know how to respond to her natural curiosity. He knew Mac preferred honesty, but MacLeod had suffered so much on his behalf that Methos didn’t know if there would still be a them when Duncan was healed, nor did he know how much MacLeod might want him to reveal to her.

He could feel the sweat breaking out on his brow as he gave a nervous nod. She’d been nothing but charming, but still he felt as though he were on trial for something, “Yes. Mac inspires that kind of loyalty in people.”

“Did I say something wrong?” Grace asked a few moments later, genuine regret coloring her attitude.

Methos shook his head, “No. I’m just…it’s been a difficult year, that’s all. I’m not myself. Please forgive me.”

He focused his attention on the IV line in his hands. It was running perfectly fine, but everything inside Methos was still too raw at the moment to meet her gaze straight on. He could feel those deep brown eyes following his every move, observing him with a perspicacity that took centuries to develop.

“I jumped to conclusions before – didn’t I?” Grace asked in a very soft voice after another silence.

Methos couldn’t ignore her as she came forward and put her hand on his arm. It looked so small and pale against his brown Henley.

“There isn’t a her in Duncan’s life now – is there?” she continued.

His eyes snapped to her face. Was he wearing a sign or something? “How did you…?”

“I know an aching heart when I see one. God knows, I’ve carried one for long enough myself. You’re suffering as much as poor Duncan there. He’s very fortunate to have so good a friend,” Grace offered.

Methos could have drowned in the bottomless wells of compassion that were her eyes. There was no judgment there, no censure at all, just that blanketing warmth and acceptance that seemed to be the bulwark of her character.

And…he wasn’t worthy of it. He felt like he had that night Duncan had first offered him his love, like he had to show her she was wasting her sympathy on the likes of him. So instead of accepting her words in the spirit they were offered, Methos found himself tightly informing, “I’m not that good a friend. Duncan wouldn’t be lying there if it weren’t for me.”

Her head cocked to the side, her expression remaining its tranquil self as she waited to hear whatever he might say next.

“I wasn’t always a…civilized man,” Methos met her gaze and held it. “I did some horrible things in my younger days and…one of my victims did this to MacLeod to get back at me.”

“We all make mistakes,” Grace answered.

Her unshaken composure brought MacLeod’s Chronicle to mind. Staring into her gentle brown eyes, Methos was reminded of the passage where Mac’s awestruck Watcher had described the calm with which the Immortal midwife had offered MacLeod her head when they first met. Something in him needed to test how deep that serenity of hers ran. His nerves stretched to the breaking point, he crisply reported, “My mistakes involved the torture and slaughter of innocents.”

Her expression turning very grave, Grace nodded. After a quiet moment, she said, “It’s a heavy burden you carry, then.”

“That’s it?” Methos quizzed, not understanding why he was revealing these things to an absolute stranger. Only, as with Mary Shelly, she possessed an ineffable quality that made him want to be upfront with her, to have her hate or like him for whom he really was and not the role he was playing at the moment.

“I’m not your judge, Adam,” Grace answered, staring deep into his eyes. “I know Duncan well enough to know that you must be a good man now, no matter your past. You wouldn’t be his friend, otherwise. What was done to Duncan was horrible, but it wasn’t your fault.”

“You sound very sure of that,” Methos could barely get the words above a whisper; his throat was so tight.

“Let’s just say that I’m an excellent judge of character,” she gave his hand another squeeze. “I can understand where it would be very easy to feel responsible for what’s happened here. I’ve been there myself. I…there was a man I loved once. Like you, time changed him, only…he went from good to evil.” She was talking about Carlos Sandaras, Methos realized. “After I left him…he stalked me. Eventually, he ended up killing a mortal I’d loved for forty years. In my head, I knew that I couldn’t be held responsible for his crime, but to this day, there’s a part of me that still blames myself. If it hadn’t been for me, Paul would still be alive today.”

“Or he could have died the day you didn’t meet,” Methos quickly countered, falling easily into the kind of debate he had in the philosophy courses he taught, willing to do almost anything to remove the shadows from those lovely eyes.

“Precisely. No one can accept responsibility for the whims of fortune. This could have happened to Duncan because of one of his own enemies, in which case, you might never have found him,” Grace said. “All that matters is that you got him back alive.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t usually wear my heart on my sleeve like this,” Methos confessed, his gaze drawn irresistibly to the corpse-still figure bundled beneath the green duvet on the bed. His entire life was so tied to that comatose man now that he didn’t have a clue how he could begin to untangle himself if the need arose, if Duncan didn’t recover.

“You spent over eight months searching for and worrying about Duncan. Whose nerves wouldn’t be frazzled after that kind of ordeal?” she dismissed. “Give yourself some time. You need to recover as much as he does.”

More grateful than he could say for this remarkable woman’s kindness and insight, Methos found himself asking a completely ridiculous question, “You think he’ll recover, then?”

She stared down at the pale man under the duvet and tubes. “There’s nothing physically wrong with him. Duncan MacLeod is the strongest man I know. He’ll find his way back.”

“You sound like you really believe that,” Methos said, needing her optimism right now.

“Despair is easy. Duncan never believed in it. No matter how horrible things were, he was always the one who could find reasons why we had to go on living when everything we loved died around us. He never let me give up on life, not ever. He won’t, either, especially not when he has someone he loves very deeply to live for.”

“You’re making another assumption there,” Methos pointed out, feeling his cheeks warm.

“Am I?” her smile was pure sunlight; it filled the entire room. “He’d be a fool not to…and Duncan is no man’s fool.”

He didn’t need a mirror to know he’d gone as red as Mac usually did. Gods, but she was an incredible woman.

Methos found himself falling into an older form of address as he replied, “You flatter me mercilessly, my lady.”

“Hardly,” she smiled back, turning a little pink, “Like I said, I’m a good judge of character. Come, tell me your plans and how I can help and…perhaps you could offer me some lunch? It was a long plane ride and I’m famished.”

Methos turned towards the kitchen. “Of course, I’ll…”

“You’ll come and eat,” Joe Dawson said from halfway across the living room. Obviously, they’d caught him on his return trip from the kitchen. He had a steaming coffee mug in hand. Methos could see that there already was a tray of sandwiches sitting on the counter, which was what had taken Joe so long, he realized.

Once they were all sitting around the table with food and drinks sorted out, Methos said, “I think our first order of business should be informing the authorities of Mac’s return.”

“That makes sense,” Joe nodded.

Grace began, “I’ll say he’s been under my care for the past week…”

“No, Lebrun’s no fool. He’ll know you arrived this morning as soon as he checks the airline records. We’ll say we found Mac last night,” Methos said.

“Inspector Lebrun is handling Duncan’s case?” Grace questioned in a worried tone that set Methos’ nerves on edge again.

“Yes. Why? Is there a problem?” Methos asked, for all that her expression made it plain that there was a large problem.

“Inspector Lebrun was the detective assigned to Paul’s murder. I was their main suspect. Lebrun is sure to remember me.”

“Great,” Joe sighed.

“No, that could still work in our favor,” Methos said.

“Huh?” Joe asked while Grace simply stared the same question at him.

“If Lebrun knows Mac has a friend who is a physician, it mightn’t seem as strange to him that MacLeod is being cared for here at the barge, instead of in hospital,” Methos explained.

“That does make sense,” Grace said.

“After we get the legalities worked out, I want to move MacLeod out to the country, to make him less of a target,” Methos informed. “I was wondering if I might impose upon you to stay here with Joe and Duncan while I make the necessary arrangements? I might be gone as long as four days. You needn’t worry about defending Mac. Joe is more than capable of handling that, but…I’d like him forewarned if one of us comes hunting.”

“Of course. I can stay as long as you need me to,” Grace instantly assured.

“Thanks,” both Joe and he acknowledged at once, breaking everybody into the much-needed relief of a laugh.

“We better get our ducks in a row if we’re gonna be dealin’ with Lebrun any time soon,” Joe warned once they’d calmed.

Munching on his ham and cheese sandwich, Methos nodded, his mind frantically working out what he hoped would be an unflawed cover story.

************************

“You expect me to believe this dribble?” Inspector Lebrun demanded, his long, slender face taut with anger. In his deep blue suit and long black trench coat, which was still wet from the rain, the lanky detective seemed to fill even the cavernous barge’s living room.

Lebrun’s reaction was about what Methos had expected it to be. The Inspector was as skeptical of their story as any good cop would be.

When there was no reply to his rhetorical question, Lebrun repeated the facts as Methos had reported them, “After abducting MacLeod and holding him at some undisclosed location for nearly nine months, his captors simply decided to dump him on the dock in front of the barge again – with no ransom being paid?”

“We found him out there the night before last,” Methos reported.

“And instead of immediately bringing your comatose friend to the nearest hospital, you called Ms. Chandell and asked her to fly in from the States to treat him?” Lebrun questioned what Methos knew to be the weakest link in their already incredibly shaky fabrication.

“I’ve had some medical experience,” Methos explained, calling on five millennia of acting experience to pull this lie off. Lebrun’s expression made it plain that he knew this tale for the BS it was. Methos just had to make certain that there were no obvious holes in his end of the fantasy. So long as their cover story held together, the good Inspector would have no choice but to accept it. “His pulse was strong. There were no signs of trauma to the head or concussion. I could tell MacLeod wasn’t in mortal danger-”

“He was only unconscious and completely unresponsive to outside stimuli,” Lebrun sneered. “Monsieur, where I come from, comatose people are hospitalized.”

Methos nodded. “Under other circumstances, I would have done so immediately, but…I wasn’t certain that a hospital would be able to provide adequate security for him right now. I was afraid his kidnappers would….”

“Change their minds and snatch him back again?” Lebrun asked, obviously not even trying to keep the sarcasm out of his tone.

“Inspector, please, I appreciate that this is difficult for you, but--” Grace attempted to add her sense of calm to the tense scene in the barge’s living room. Methos was just grateful they’d gotten the detective out of the bedroom. If Lebrun had poked the unconscious MacLeod one more time, Methos would have ripped his arm off.

“Difficult? Madame, I am standing here on this boat with four people, all of whom have been material witnesses in homicides, two of whom were investigated as suspects in those killings. The tale I am being told wouldn’t satisfy a rookie on his first day on the job. Do you seriously expect me to believe that these kidnappers just got tired of holding MacLeod and dumped him on his doorstep again, without ever making so much as a ransom demand? You may as well tell me that he was abducted by aliens, Madame. That at least would make some sense.”

Joe’s sigh filled the room. “What do you want us to say, Inspector?”

“The truth might be novel,” Lebrun shot back.

Stamping down on his temper, Methos tried again, “Those are the facts. We can’t change them just because we don’t understand them.”

“Very well. I have your statements. I would appreciate it if you would inform me when Monsieur MacLeod is no longer under his doctor’s care. Monsieurs Dawson and Pierson, would you be so kind as to answer one question before I leave?” Lebrun asked.

Sensing a trap, Methos asked, “What would that be, Inspector?”

“Where were you both on the night of October 31st?” Lebrun quizzed with the intensity of Hercule Pirot in a drawing room murder mystery. The set was certainly set for that type of melodramatic denouement.

Methos tried to tell himself that the shocked silence that followed wasn’t nearly as guilt-ridden as it sounded to him.

“We were both here on the barge. Joe brought dinner over from our friend Maurice’s restaurant. We ate together here and Joe spent the night. Why do you ask?” Methos asked.

Lebrun turned to Joe, “I suppose you can confirm that?”

“Of course I can confirm it,” Joe insisted, sounding for all the world as though it were true. “We were here all night.”

“And you never left the premises?” Lebrun quizzed.

Methos knew that the Paris police had stopped watching the dock three weeks after MacLeod’s abduction. Neither of the two ships that were moored next to Mac’s barge had had cars in front of them when Methos had left to face Longford on Samhain night. Figuring that

Lebrun was just fishing for information, he took a chance that there were no witnesses to either their departure or return on that fateful night and confirmed Joe’s lie, “Not until the following morning. Why do you ask?”

“No reason. The Aronville police just have a headless corpse on their hands. It’s strange that Duncan MacLeod should resurface at the same time we encounter another of these bizarre murders. The coincidence is rather astonishing -- wouldn’t you agree?” Lebrun quizzed, the hardness in his eyes telling Methos how very frustrating this entire situation was for him. The detective obviously had faultless cop instincts. Lebrun knew they were guilty as hell. He just didn’t have the wherewithal to prove it. Fortunately for them all, the Inspector’s sense of personal honor wouldn’t allow him to work outside the law.

“I’m afraid I fail to see the connection,” Methos answered in his calmest, most inscrutable player’s voice.

“Why did I just know you were going to say that?” Lebrun said. “The police are not fools, monsieur. Be warned, I am watching you all. I don’t know what you’re involved in, but it reeks to high heaven. We might not have enough evidence to indict at this time, but there will be no more beheadings on my watch. I promise you that.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Methos said with unforced sincerity. “You may not believe this, but we do appreciate all the time and effort you have put into this case, Inspector. And I really do wish we had something more useful to tell you.”

“No doubt,” Lebrun replied, totally unappeased. “If you wish to be helpful, you will contact me when Duncan MacLeod recovers. Until then…I will be watching, have no doubt. Adieu.”

With a curt nod to them all, Lebrun stalked out of the barge.

“Whew, that went well,” Joe said, his sarcasm giving Methos’ a run for its money.

“It actually did. No one ended up behind bars,” Methos answered, stepping to the closest starboard porthole to assure himself that the detective had actually left. He squashed his nose up against the cold glass, breathing in the dirt on the metla plate that held the thick glass in place as his gaze followed the tall police officer’s departure.

“The poor man was beside himself,” Grace commented from her seat on the couch.

“He’s a good cop. He knows a lie when he hears it,” Methos said, returning to the living room once the white police car pulled away.

“That’s one of the hardest parts of being Immortal,” Grace said once Methos returned to lean with his back to the hearth, his chilled body soaking up the fire’s heat, “having to lie to good men.”

“The alternative is too dangerous,” Methos reminded.

“Yes, but…that doesn’t make it any easier,” she said.

“You must be tired,” Joe said, reading Methos’ mind. More than tired, their guest looked worn out.

“It’s been a long two days,” Grace deferred.

“How ‘bout I get you set up in the guest room?” Joe offered. “You want give me a hand moving the stuff off the bed, Adam?”

“Sure,” Methos agreed, though he had no idea where they were going to store everything. Myrddid’s things were now timesharing the space with Tessa’s artwork.

“Will you be leaving tomorrow to make your arrangements to move Duncan?” Grace asked Methos before he and Joe left the room.

“If you don’t mind,” Methos answered. “I’ll be gone as briefly as possible.”

“No rush. I’m certain Joe and I can handle things for a couple of days,” Grace assured.

“Thank you…for everything,” Methos acknowledged.

“Yeah…we never would have been able to pull it off with Lebrun without your help,” Joe added.

“I’m sure you would have thought of something. Come, I’ll help you get the room ready,” Grace offered.

His spirits buoyed by her unfaltering optimism, Methos led the way to the spare room that had once been Ritchie Ryan’s.

*************************

“Be honest, you’re takin’ us out to the deep weeds to kill us all – aren’t you?” Joe Dawson asked from the ambulette’s passenger seat six hours into their trip, sounding like Ritchie Ryan at his whiniest.

In the driver’s seat, Methos smiled, while Grace erupted into melodic laughter from the back where she sat beside Duncan’s stretcher. Methos couldn’t really blame Joe. This was the first thing resembling a complaint in their all day road trip. The rest stops had helped, but everyone was getting tired.

“Actually, our destination is just around the next bend,” Methos assured.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Joe’s skeptical gaze eyeing the pine forest growing on both sides of the road.

“You would know this because…? It’s the forest primeval out there,” Joe announced, his tone eliciting another giggle from the back.

“Well, at least I can breathe again,” Grace added. “Those turns on that last cliff were unbelievable.”

“But beautiful,” Joe said, still seeming more than a little awed. “I can’t remember the last time I saw anything that spectacular.”

“Mont Blanc has been a tourist attraction for centuries,” Grace said. “There used to be a pagan temple up there dedicated to Jupiter. It’s said that St. Bernard fought a battle there to drive the pagan forces out.”

“Did he?” Joe asked, craning his neck around to see Grace, who was looking as lovely as the surrounding Alps in her sky blue blouse and black jeans.

Joe wasn’t looking too bad himself, Methos realized, unable to recall the last time Dawson had paid such detail to his wardrobe. In his blue jeans, white turtleneck and black wool cardigan, Joe looked very sharp indeed.

“That’s a little before my time, I’m afraid,” Grace laughed.

In his peripheral vision, Methos saw Joe turn to him, but the Watcher didn’t say anything. Methos appreciated his friend’s discretion. To Grace, he was still just Adam Pierson. Though Methos liked and respected her, he hadn’t confided his true age or identity to her. He’d prefer to keep it that way for a while.

Everyone seemed elated just to be out of the barge, except Duncan, of course, who was as oblivious as ever. But Methos was hopeful. The infectious good humor of his two conscious companions had buoyed his own spirits immensely. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Joe smile so much. Considering the fact that MacLeod had yet to open his eyes, Methos had to attribute the change in Joe to their lovely visitor. Not that he could fault Joe. Three days alone in Grace Chandell’s company would be more than enough to cure what ailed any red-blooded man.

“Ah, here we are. Just as promised,” Methos announced as they slowly circumnavigated another hairpin turn and the road opened up before them. To the right, the wild mountain vista still seemed to range into white-capped infinity, their destination sitting in subdued, if deteriorating glory in a gentle valley to the left of the road.

“This is where we’re staying?” Joe didn’t quite manage to keep his incredulity from flavoring his tone. “It’s…it’s a cemetery.”

Methos stared at the crumbling white, gray and black granite and marble vaults, crosses, statues, and tombstones that were all that were visible from the road. He could see where Joe would easily get that impression. The gray November twilight wasn’t helping the atmosphere any. All that was needed was a ghostly specter passing through the ruins to make the place the perfect site for a horror movie.

“Actually, I think it’s, I mean, I think it was…a monastery,” Grace said, confusion more than disappointment in her attitude.

“We’re staying in a monastery?” Joe sounded completely dejected.

“It hasn’t been lived in since the 13th Century, I think,” Grace added, her uncertainty clear.

“They built St. Nicholas Church in Combloux in 1400 and closed this place down then,” Methos said. “It’s been privately owned ever since,” he didn’t add by himself. Taking his gaze from the road for a second he met Joe’s disillusioned hazel eyes and offered, “Darius was stationed here during the late 13th Century.”

“Yeah?” that piqued Joe’s interest.

“You knew Darius, too?” Grace questioned, her hushed tone revealing that the monk’s loss was still as painful to her as it was to MacLeod.

“Not personally,” Joe answered, sparing Methos the necessity of lying or bringing up things best left buried. “Mac was very close to him. He still misses him.”

“We all do,” Grace said. “Darius was…very special. When Mac called to say he was gone, I couldn’t believe it. It makes you wonder what the world is coming to when a priest isn’t safe in a church. Mac never did explain why Darius’ killer chose to behead him. It seems such a strange method for a mortal to use these days.”

Joe and he exchanged a quick, nervous glance as Methos pulled the ambulette through the gothic stone gates and started up the unpaved drive. Joe clammed up immediately, obviously unable to lie to someone he was starting to have feelings for.

Taking a deep breath, Methos covered with, “Perhaps Duncan didn’t know the details himself…or perhaps they were too painful to share.”

There, that wasn’t a complete lie. Methos had never had any true affection for the man who had murdered one of his closest friends, but when he’d heard about how Horton had executed Darius on St. Julien’s altar, his rage had almost brought Death out for a visit.

“Yes, of course. Some things are better left unspoken,” Grace agreed.

“Not to be too critical here,” Joe said, changing the subject as the ambulette turned down the road towards what had once been the monastery chapel, “but that place doesn’t have a roof.”

Methos looked at the moss and lichen spotted, gray stone edifice that had prompted Joe’s words, his smile growing as he took in the unprepossessing picture it painted. He’d known and loved this place when it had been one of the few centers of literacy in France, when the monastery teemed with brothers and ran hot with ecclesiastical and philosophical debates. Seeing it now with its crashed in roof, glassless windows and crumbling walls was like looking at the denuded corpse of a friend; it hurt that much, even though he’d spent the past three days here overseeing the modifications to their new living quarters. But even in the last sad stages of its existence, the monastery was still offering Methos sanctuary when it was most needed.

“We’re staying behind the original building,” Methos explained, making the turn that led to the back of the chapel.

“Wow,” Joe remarked as they rounded final bend and the cottage nested in the shadows of the hulking ruin came into view. “You’d never see this from the road.”

“I think it was intentionally built that way,” Grace said, leaning over the unconscious Highlander to study the whitewashed cottage through the ambulette’s side window. “Look at how all the windows in the back of the house face the chapel’s remaining wall and the mountains behind.”

“It looks like there’s a courtyard or something between them,” Joe added, peering curiously at the twilit structures.

“A small garden, actually,” Methos informed, turning off the engine. The hedgerow at the back of the garden effectively cut off any light for the cottage that the collapsing abbey wall might reveal.

For a long moment, Methos just sat there staring at the place through the windshield, memories of the summer he’d brought Byron here filtering through his thoughts. The cottage had been new and just one breath away from the ideal back then. The thickets of rose bushes that had run wild in the intervening decades had been carefully tended and heavy with blossoms that year. Byron had written a poem to one of the blooms on the tangle to his left after they’d made love in the grass beneath it one dew soaked morning. The cottage’s wattle and daub whitewashed walls hadn’t been overgrown with vines back then. Nor had the grass been brown and dead underfoot. Methos knew that all these things would change in time as soon as the wheel of the seasons turned again. He just wished that he could have brought Mac here when it looked its loveliest, not when winter was closing in around them and the ambiance of the dying abbey overshadowed everything. But then, Methos’ life had rarely been as he wished it. When he really thought back on the idyllic summer he’d spent here with Lord Byron, he could remember that Byron had actually been at his cruelest that year. Memory and time just had a way of airbrushing out the unpleasant reality wrinkles.

“You okay?”

Realizing that Joe’s question was addressed to him, Methos started out of his reverie.

“I’m fine, just tired,” Methos lied, the ghosts outside almost as disturbing as the corporeal one in the back of the vehicle. “Let’s get Duncan settled, then I’ll show you your rooms.”

“You did all this in three days?” Joe marveled as he stared around at the furnishings of the cozy living room that the front door opened onto.

Methos shrugged as he and Grace carefully guided MacLeod’s stretcher over the threshold. “Most of what you see was already here. It was Duncan’s room I had to make arrangements for.”

“It’s so perfect,” Grace said, openly admiring the antique couch, red velvet wingback chairs, mahogany end tables, and sideboard that filled the small area. “It’s like stepping back in time. I haven’t used a lamp like that in eighty years.”

Her pointy little chin gestured towards the hand painted, porcelain oil lamp that had been Methos’ last wife’s pride and joy. Most of the pieces were like that, precious to someone Methos had loved. Throughout the centuries, he’d collected quite a cache of sentimental mementos that were on display up here in the cottage or stored safely in crates in the monk’s cells that catacombed the underground area all around the abbey.

“There is electricity,” Methos said, reading Joe’s uneasiness at the ‘stepping back in time’ comment. “We’ve got a generator out back. There isn’t any television or radio reception, I’m afraid. And the mountains block most cellphone service.”

“Plumbing?” Joe questioned, looking as though he expected the worst.

“Indoor. The water comes from an underground well,” Methos answered.

Grace’s elegant brow crinkled. “Was this the original St. Bernard’s Abbey?”

Methos nodded. He’d never asked her how old she was, but her Chronicles placed her a good hundred years before MacLeod, which was when the Watchers had discovered her. There was no telling her true age without asking her, which he was loath to do.

“There was something about St. Bernard’s wells that was special – wasn’t there?” Grace asked.

“Not the wells. There are hot springs below the chapel. They were said to be magic,” Methos offered, in the same half-serious tone he’d used to tell MacLeod about the sacred well during the Dark Quickening. That was the problem when dealing with the Mystery. It grew in silence and secrecy. From his recent dabbling into long forgotten arts, Methos could feel the power of this place throbbing under his feet the way most men would feel a subway car rumble by below them; only, he knew that his companions would be completely oblivious to that aspect of St. Bernard’s. Like most of the monks that had lived here, if they felt it at all, it would register as an inexplicable nervousness or uneasiness. Byron had sworn the place haunted his first night here, but the poet had been more sensitive to these things than most people were.

“Something happened to them – didn’t it? That’s why they closed this place, I think,” Grace looked as though she were pulling those facts up from a place not much visited.

Methos knew exactly how she felt. There were whole millennia he tried not to remember. The years that the abbey had been at its height had been some of the darkest Europe had known.

“The wells were used from time immemorial as a source of healing. They were as large and as frequented as the Roman Baths in Bath, England, from 800 A.D. to the mid-1300s. Thousands of people made pilgrimages here every year,” Methos reported, trying to keep the history on an impersonal level, giving no more out than a well-informed tour guide would.

“It was as popular as Lourdes at one point,” Grace added.

“What happened to change that?” Joe asked. “I never heard of this place.”

He could feel Grace’s gaze on him. Their eyes met. The scars from the nightmare that they’d both lived through seeming to reach out and touch each other.

Methos swallowed hard. He didn’t know how to lie in the face of such honesty.

“It’s all right, Adam,” Grace softly assured, reading him far too easily. “Your presence tells me that you’re nowhere near as young as you’d like me to believe.”

The fact that she could sense that told him that Grace Chandell was a lot older than even Watcher Records suspected.

Nodding his acceptance of the inevitable, Methos answered Joe’s question, “The same thing that happened to all of Europe – the Black Death. It hit us here in the spring of 1348. I’d seen plagues before, but never anything like this. A group of Italian pilgrims brought it in with them. One was sick when they arrived. The abbot and I saw him that evening, but by then it was far too late. The sick man’s companions had visited the wells, dined with our order, and toured the abbey by the time we realized there was plague among us. We had an epidemic in three days. Within a week, we had fifty percent fatalities. In early March there were three hundred monks permanently stationed here and facilities for over a hundred guests. On Beltaine I buried the last of my brothers, locked the gates behind me and set off on foot for Paris to warn them. Only…”

“The plague was faster,” Grace completed. “You have no idea what it was like, Joe. The entire world died around every Immortal back then. Once the Black Death hit…we’d be the only ones left alive in an entire village.”

“But only after dying from it ourselves,” Methos added.

“God,” Joe gave a visible shudder and then asked the most natural question. “What would ever make you want to come back here, let alone build a house here?”

Grace answered before Methos even had a chance, “Protection, of course. The abbey is still holy ground. No one driving down the road would ever know this house was here. And the graveyard is nondescript enough not to draw attention. It looks just like a thousand other abandoned cemeteries.”

“And the hot springs are still down there. Most of them dried up about three hundred years ago, but there are still a few running hot. Plus…” since he couldn’t mention how the place thrummed with power, he settled on a lesser truth, “I was happy here once.”

Joe gave a slow nod, seeming to understand all that Methos couldn’t say. In his own way, Dawson lived with loss on a daily basis the same way Immortals did.

“Well,” Joe said, as if sensing Methos’ need to leave the past behind, “why don’t we get Mac settled and see about dinner? There are grocery stores up here – aren’t there?”

Methos grinned, loving the man for his prosaic streak. “Yes, Joe. There are several just outside Combloux. That’s only about a half hour from here. But you needn’t worry about that tonight. I stocked up the other day. We have a full larder…and an impressive bar.”

Methos nodded to the liquor cabinet, which shared a wall with the ornately carved breakfront.

“How ‘bout I get us a drink while you guys get Mac comfortable?” Joe suggested. Dawson was wonderful when it came to helping out in the sick room, but had learned to steer clear of the room when Grace and Methos were consulting. Not that Methos could blame him. There was nothing like listening to two doctors debate the best method of treatment for a man who had no physiological reason to be comatose.

“Thanks, Joe.” Methos focused on Grace at the other end of the stretcher and said, “Mac’s room is over this way. Joe, if you need the facilities the bathroom is the door to the left of the kitchen. There’s only the one, I’m afraid, so we’ll have to share.”

“No problem,” Joe assured. “We’ve been fine on the barge so far.”

“Yes, well, the barge is somewhat larger than the cottage, unfortunately,” Methos warned.

“It’s smaller than the barge’s?” Joe asked.

“Considerably,” Methos answered.

“Well, I’m all for togetherness,” Dawson grinned.

“That’s good, because we’re going to have a hell of a lot of it here,” Methos found a smile.

“It’s bigger than most of the places I lived before this century,” Grace added. “Most of the cottages I’ve lived in were a single room. This is cozy, but not claustrophobic.”

Cheered by his companions’ graciousness, Methos lifted an eyebrow and gave a droll, “We’ll give it a week – shall we?”

“Optimist,” Joe sassed. “Go get Mac settled down and I’ll get us that drink.”

“Thanks, Joe,” Methos smiled, grateful for so much more than the drink.

Taking the head of the stretcher and walking backwards, Methos led the gurney to the tiny hall to the right of the living room that three doors opened onto. None of the windows in this part of the house could be seen from the road. If one could ignore the ruined abbey right out back, the bedroom windows had a breathtaking view of the Alps behind the collapsing chapel.

“I set this one up as Mac’s,” he told Grace as he opened the nearest door and turned on the overhead light.

The four-poster bed that had occupied the majority of the compact room before the modern hospital bed had been added stood on its side at the far end of the room. The old mahogany night table, doily-draped dresser with its ornate chamber pot and pitcher, hand-woven rug and paintings were the same as they’d been for the past two-hundred years or so. The only new items were the medical supplies stacked on and beside the dresser, a small cot in the corner that any of the monks who’d inhabited St. Bernard’s would have been right at home on, the hospital bed and hospital table beside it.

“This is wonderful. You’ve thought of everything,” Grace approved as she took in his arrangements. “Duncan should be very comfortable here.”

“I hope so,” he said, looking around the almost claustrophobically small space and thinking that Mac would hate it. It was so different from the airy, open places Mac chose to live that he really had trouble seeing MacLeod liking this tiny cottage much, but it was the safest place he could think of on such short notice. Mac’s island in the States might have been more comfortable for them all with its huge bedrooms and vast living room, but the logistics of transporting a comatose Immortal overseas had thwarted him. He’d even been leery of flying Mac here, which would have been a lot more comfortable for them all than their all day trek across France. But Methos had wanted to draw the least attention as possible to their movements. While it would have been far more convenient to fly Mac to Geneva and make the hour drive to the abbey from there, they would have left a paper trail that even the stupidest headhunter could follow. Their rented ambulette was a much better idea. Methos would simply drive it back tomorrow, pay the king’s ransom in mileage fees and return with his Land Rover the next day.

“Shall we get him into bed?” Grace suggested.

Methos quickly moved the IV, to which Mac was still hooked up, between the bed and stretcher, pulled back the duvet, checked to make sure that the pressure cushion was properly placed, and plumped the pillows.

“On three,” he said, once he’d freed Mac of the stretcher’s safety restraints. The Highlander was still curled on his side in as much of a fetal position as he’d been able to maintain on the narrow stretcher, so moving him was as awkward as ever.

Together they lifted the Highlander onto the bed, making sure to set him on his opposite side to ease the pressure and keep the bedsores at bay as long as possible.

“Let me help you with that,” Grace offered as Methos retrieved a fresh diaper from the bag in the corner. He’d changed Mac at the last rest stop while the others went in to get lunch, but that had been almost three hours ago.

“That’s okay. I’ll do it,” he snapped. Belatedly realizing that his tone mightn’t have been the kindest, Methos quickly explained, “I’ve missed him the last few days.”

Understatement of the century. He’d gone back to his old pattern of not being able to sleep at all at night, which made no sense, considering that MacLeod had only been back at the barge for a week before Methos had left for the abbey. Not that you could really call Mac’s present state back, Methos amended.

“That’s okay,” Grace assured, the concerned expression in her eyes seeming to say that she really did know what he was going through. “Why don’t I go get dinner started?”

He gave her a grateful, tired smile and nodded. “There’s a tray of frozen vegetarian lasagna in the bottom of the refrigerator and some salad fixings.”

“I’ll get right on it,” she smiled and left.

Feeling guilty about his short temper, Methos quickly dealt with the diaper situation. Once he had Mac clean and fresh again, he wiped his hands with one of the wipes and disposed the soiled diaper in the room’s trashcan. Which brought another issue to mind. He hadn’t really thought about trash. The last time he’d lived here for any length of time, all their refuse had been biodegradable.

Adding the new problem to his ever-growing list of things to be dealt with, Methos gazed down at the unconscious man curled on his side in the slightly elevated hospital bed. The steady feedings of the last five days had done Mac a world of good. His face had filled out again. He was still pale, but nowhere near the ghostly pallor he’d had that first morning. If it weren’t for the bad haircut and the feeding tube trailing from his left nostril, Methos would almost have believed his lover to be simply sleeping, so peaceful and handsome did MacLeod look lying there. The dark fan of Mac’s eyelashes against his cheekbones stirred such a fierce protective impulse in Methos that he hardly recognized himself.

If only Mac would just wake up….

Every time he looked at Mac lying there, the pain and guilt stabbed into him anew. His heart ached to see Duncan so motionless. But Methos had endured levels of pain that would have destroyed most men – be they mortal or Immortal. He could bear this. Seeing Mac broken was intensely hurtful, but not nearly as difficult as what Mac had suffered to put him in this state. With all the horrors Methos had survived over the last five millennia, he’d been fortunate. He’d never been buried alive like MacLeod had, at least, not for as long as Mac had spent entombed. It had taken time to put Mac in this state, and it would take time to heal him from it, Methos reminded himself. He knew that all he needed to do was be patient, but it was so hard watching his lover sleep the sleep of the dead, with no clue as to when Mac might recover. The word if echoed through his mind like the voices of the monks who’d sung here would sometimes drift through the shattered abbey outside when the wind was high and the power right, but there was no if in Methos’ reality, not where Duncan’s recovery was concerned.

On some level, Methos recognized that he had snapped, that his own sanity was as problematical as Mac’s recovery, but…Duncan had promised him on one of the most significant nights of Methos’ life that he wouldn’t leave Methos until there was no hope left for them. The one thing Methos had always believed was that while there was life, there was hope. There was still life here, and, therefore, hope. So as long as MacLeod kept his head on his shoulders, Methos would keep his faith in Mac’s recovery. He had to. The alternative was simply too unbearable to consider.

Taking heart from the difference between this tranquil sleeper and the tortured wreck they’d rescued from Longford’s clutches on Samhain night, Methos found a genuine smile and gently said, “I know you’re busy sleeping now, Mac, but we’ve really got to do your massage and exercises now. Tomorrow morning, I’ve got something really special to show you – some hot springs down in the basement. Maybe you’ll want to open your eyes and enjoy them. They’re not as extensive as the Roman Baths in England, but they are quite beautiful in their own way, if I do say so myself. If you open your eyes tomorrow, I’ll tell you how I built them. We’ve got our own entrance to the springs, so we needn’t ever go outside. It’s something I think you’ll really enjoy seeing.”

Affecting not to notice his companion’s uninterrupted silence, Methos slipped the duvet off Mac, undid the ties of his light blue hospital gown, reached for the balsam-scented body oil that he’d left on the hospital table for just this purpose and gently started to work at the rock hard, atrophied muscles that kept his unconscious friend in this curled up position. Until those muscles unclenched and healed, it was probably better that Mac remained oblivious. The stretching was going to be a slow, painful and arduous process – on both of them.

Continuing to offer soft encouragement, interspersed with snippets about the hot springs downstairs, Methos fell into the motions that were to become the pattern of their lives as he manipulated first the stony muscles of Mac’s back and then his companion’s limbs in turn. Though some might find the effort grueling, Methos was content simply to have Duncan here and breathing. And, one important thing hadn’t changed. He still loved touching Mac’s skin. Just feeling the living heat of his friend in that silky soft glide of flesh was as therapeutic to Methos’ stressed nerves as it was to MacLeod’s strained body. Sinking into an almost meditative state, Methos let his fingers do the kind of healing bodywork he hadn’t really practiced since his days with Myrddid, when intent was more important than actual skill. He knew if he just kept this up and got through to Mac wherever the Highlander was hiding, that Mac would open his eyes and their life would return to normal…providing MacLeod could ever forgive him for what he’d suffered on Methos’ behalf.

Choosing not to dwell on that daunting proviso, Methos concentrated on simply seeing Mac open his eyes.

************************

Mac didn’t open his eyes the next day when introduced to the hot springs in the abbey basement, nor any of the days after that. His body did heal, though. Between Methos’ ministrations, the spring water’s relaxing heat and the natural curative powers of Immortality, MacLeod’s recovery was nothing short of miraculous. Had a mortal been afflicted with a similar state of atrophy, it would have been months or even years before the damage was rectified. But within two weeks, Methos had Mac’s back muscles relaxed and stretched to the point where the Highlander could once again lie flat on his back. It was a small victory, but Methos was taking his joy where he could.

The work was exhausting, though, both physically and emotionally. With every gain he made in returning Mac’s body to its former splendor, Methos couldn’t help but pray that Mac would wake up from his sleep, which, of course, he never did. Each day the disappointment was sharper and harder to handle. Yet, Methos kept the massage therapy up even when he knew that the physical damage was healed. He kept hoping that the gentleness of the touches might eventually filter down to wherever Mac was hiding.

Two and a half weeks after their arrival, the pattern of Methos’ days was pretty well set. He slept on the cot in the corner of Duncan’s room. He’d wake up, change, wash, shave and feed Mac, see to his own ablutions and breakfast, then begin the day’s worth of physical therapy that was getting Mac’s body back in shape, even if it were doing nothing to improve MacLeod’s mental recovery.

This morning he entered their room dripping wet from the shower, shaking his head as he caught sight of the pile of clothing he’d forgotten to bring into the bathroom with him.

“I’m really losing it, Mac. Forgetting everything these days. Not just the clothes, either. I looked at the calendar while in the kitchen this morning. Did you know that tonight is the anniversary of our first night together? I’m afraid I neglected to get you anything. We’ll celebrate when you’re more yourself – all right?” he gave a soft smile to his oblivious lover and crossed to the clothes on the bed, freezing in place as an Immortal signature registered in a direction he wasn’t expecting to feel anyone. His racing heart calmed as he recognized Grace’s presence. It seemed to be coming from outside, in the garden, of all places. What she was doing out there in the cold and newly fallen snow was beyond him.

A second later, Methos heard her softly call, “Joe, are you out here?”

“Yeah,” Dawson’s unmistakable Chicago accent answered.

Their voices were muted by distance, but perfectly audible in the winter stillness. Any other time of the year the birdsongs and the sound of the rushing brook out back would have made it impossible to hear a private conversation from that far away, but with the stream frozen and the birds gone, they might just as well have been in the next room.

Methos wondered if he should somehow announce his presence, for he was eavesdropping. Grace would know that there was an Immortal present, but she’d probably dismiss it as Duncan since she was outside Mac’s bedroom window and she had seen Methos enter the bathroom less than five minutes ago. He knew that listening in was reprehensible. Only, the cottage was so small that there really wasn’t anyplace to have private conversation, except outside. If he removed that option, the tension would be unrelenting. He decided his best bet was to practice the selective deafness that anyone prior to this century had learned to cultivate when living in conditions where there sometimes wasn’t even a private place to have sex.

They’d all been giving each other space because it was nerve-wracking to be trapped in this tiny place with no diversions. Methos had picked up Joe’s guitars and amp when he’d returned the ambulette, so Dawson had been entertaining them most every night with live music, but the days and isolation were beginning to take their toll, especially upon Joe who’d never lived in an age without radio and television.

There was a quiet, then Methos heard Grace ask, “Are you all right?”

“Yeah…no,” Joe answered. “It’s been over three weeks. There’s been no change at all. I was sure….”

“That Duncan would be better by now?” Grace supplied.

“Yeah.”

Sighing, Methos started to towel off the water dotting his skin, wishing there were a way to block out the conversation outside. No one knew better than him how depressing this was.

“It’s going to take time for him to heal,” Grace reminded.

“You really believe he’s gonna get better?” Joe demanded in that forthright manner that endeared him to as many hearts as it alienated.

Grace answered, “Adam believes it. Maybe we need to believe it for his sake.”

Another optimist bites the dust, Methos thought.

“I know. I’m tryin’, but…” Methos had rarely heard so much emotion in Joe’s voice. It was so gruff, Methos could barely understand the words.

“It hurts to see Mac this way. I know,” Grace said. “You love them both very much. This has been as hard on you as Adam. When Duncan was missing, was there anyone you could talk to about any of this, Joe?”

“What?” Joe asked.

“Adam told me how you took care of him, how you used to come over every day and bully him into eating and trying to rest. Was there anyone who took care of you that way?” she questioned.

Methos froze in the act of reaching for his underwear, hating the fact that he’d never thought of that himself. Joe had given him so much, held him together those eight months that Mac had been missing. But Joe had suffered a double loss that fateful Valentine night Mac had been abducted. Not only had MacLeod vanished from his life, but Ritchie Ryan had been killed as well. Methos had been so absorbed in Mac’s ordeal and recuperation that he’d never really addressed the pain Joe must be experiencing. He’d repeatedly thanked their friend for his stalwart devotion and tried to show Joe on a daily basis how grateful he was for his continued support, but Methos had never appreciated how much just being here must hurt Joe. Methos was so absorbed with Duncan that he knew he rarely saw anything else these days. It must be hell on both Joe and Grace to be here.

The silence that followed Grace’s question seemed endless. Finally, Joe tried to shrug it off with, “I wasn’t the one whose life was ripped apart.”

“No? You told me how long you’ve been friends with them both. I’ve seen you with Duncan, how gentle and caring you are. This has to have ripped you apart the same way it has Adam,” she pointed out.

“Why are you sayin’ these things?” Joe asked, sounding backed into a corner. Methos’ heart ached for the pain in that familiar voice.

“Because you don’t have to pretend it doesn’t hurt. Not with me, and certainly not with Adam,” she assured, saying the things Methos wished he’d had the sense to say months ago. Instead, he’d just leaned on Joe’s strength, never thinking what it must have cost his friend. There was a time when Methos’ ability to accept his own shortcomings had been limitless, but right now his guilt was such that he seriously didn’t think he could handle a single more regret.

“Adam’s got enough on his plate without worryin’ ‘bout me,” Joe dismissed, making Methos cringe inside.

“So who worries about Joe Dawson?” Grace gently challenged. Methos didn’t know if she’d known Freud, but she certainly had Sean Byrnes’ touch when it came to healing a troubled soul.

“Look, I’m fine. All right?” Joe insisted, sounding anything but fine. “I just…”

“Yes?” Grace prompted.

“I just want him to get better,” Joe’s words came out in a strangled rush. “I just want them to be happy. I want…oh, Christ…”

Methos squeezed his eyes shut at the unmistakable sounds of a strong man breaking that followed. Even though he knew that Joe needed the release, it was hard to listen to. After a moment, the quality of the sounds changed, becoming more muffled, as if Joe had buried his face in something soft…like Grace’s shoulder. Methos knew the caring physician well enough to know that she could never stand witness to such grief without offering some form of comfort. And he loved her for it very much at that moment, for being able to provide Joe with a solace that present social convention wouldn’t allow Dawson to seek with a male friend.

The sounds seemed to go on forever before Methos finally heard Joe give a near inaudible, shamed-sounding, “I’m sorry, Grace. I don’t usually lose it like that.”

“Everybody loses it occasionally, Joe. And there’s nothing to be sorry for. You did the same for me that day on the barge, remember?” Grace questioned, referring to an incident Methos had no knowledge of.

“Yeah, but that was different,” Joe said.

“How? I was upset and over-tired, the same as you. When’s the last time you slept through the whole night, Joe?” she asked.

Even from where Methos listened, he could hear the snort Joe gave to that. “1968?” Joe’s joke fell flat.

“You need to relax. Your muscles are as hard as a rock,” Grace softly observed.

“Yeah, well…”

“Look, Adam usually gives Duncan his physical therapy in their room until almost noon. Why don’t you and I go down to those hot springs and relax for a while. I’ll give you a massage and…what?” she asked after a moment, sounding disappointed.

“Thanks, Grace, I appreciate the offer, but I don’t think it’s such a good idea,” Joe denied.

“Why ever not?”

“It just isn’t – okay?” Joe insisted in a tone Methos had never heard before. Joe Dawson was one of the strongest men Methos had ever met in his life. He wasn’t accustomed to hearing fear in his voice, but that’s what it was.

“No, it’s not okay,” Grace firmly corrected. “This hasn’t been easy on anyone here. I’d like to know why you won’t take some time off with me just to relax. Was it something I said or did?”

“God, no, Grace,” Joe instantly assured, sounding shocked by the idea. “It’s not you. You’ve been great. It’s all me – okay?”

“I’d still like an explanation,” Grace said, in a tone that somehow managed to be firm and non-threatening at the same time.

A pause followed, then Joe seemed to rally, answering with his normal joking ease, which was heart-breaking, considering the content of his words, “Let’s say my dance card hasn’t been as full as I’d like for the past three decades or so. It’s been…hell…it’s been forever since I was…close to a beautiful woman. You give me that massage you’re talkin’ about and I’ll go off like a teenager and embarrass us both.”

Methos held his breath, flinching at how naked Joe had left himself. He liked Grace a lot, but if she didn’t find a diplomatic way out of this and hurt Joe now, he was going to go out there and take her head, holy ground or no holy ground.

Her reply came with surprising swiftness and innate graciousness, “I don’t embarrass easy, Joe.”

Gods, she wasn’t looking for a way out…Methos almost went weak with relief. He’d seen how smitten Joe was with her – who wouldn’t be? – but he hadn’t realized that the feelings were mutual.

“Well, I do,” Joe laid it on the line. “I know you mean well, Grace, but resisting that kinda temptation just isn’t relaxing.”

“Who said anything about resisting temptation?” Grace demanded, the first hint of something like sharpness entering her tone. Apparently, Dawson wasn’t the only one capable of telling it like it was. “I’m not playing games with you here or teasing you. I like you, Joe Dawson – a lot. I’m over seven-hundred years old. I’m old enough to know what I want when I see it.”

The only sound in the silence that followed was Duncan’s steady breathing on the bed behind Methos.

Finally, Grace asked, “Why can’t you believe that?”

“You…you’re exquisite. I…I’m not the kinda guy a woman like you goes for.”

“What kind of man would that be?” Grace sounded truly angry now.

“Someone…worthy of you. Someone as beautiful, bright and talented as yourself. Someone like Mac. I know that you and MacLeod were lovers. I’m no Duncan MacLeod, Grace. I’m just a tavern-keeper from Seacouver who’s gettin’ old way too fast,” Joe sounded like each and every one of those lines had stabbed him like a knife, like maybe they were things he’d been telling himself since he’d first met Grace. Methos was intimately acquainted with the feelings that had prompted Joe’s denial. He’d lived with them from the day he’d first laid eyes on Duncan MacLeod.

“Joe, it’s been over forty-five years since I…found someone I could truly care for. I have found a man who is beautiful, bright and talented. I’m looking right at him,” Grace argued.

It was a perverse fact of human nature that sometimes the more a person wanted something, the harder they would deny it. After a shocked silence, Joe countered in a strained voice, “Look at me. I’m fifty-seven. I’m already old now. In another ten years….”

“No one knows how long they have, not mortals, not even Immortals,” Grace countered. “Someone could come for my head and I could be dead by nightfall.”

“Over my dead body,” Joe instantly swore, sounding like he meant it.

“You would die for me, but will not lay with me? This is crazy. You want me as much as I want you.”

“Who wouldn’t want you…you’re…exquisite,” Joe rasped. “You don’t need to be wasting your time with someone like me.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Grace demanded.

“I know what I am, Grace. Ten or fifteen years ago, there might have been something here worth your time, but now…look at me!”

Grace’s tone changed, becoming softer and more lulling, “I am looking, Joe. I see before me the finest man I’ve met in ages. A man who is strong and brave as a lion, but not afraid to be gentle. A handsome man who has held me up when I cried and made me laugh when I was about to lose hope.”

And still the man couldn’t see why such qualities would outweigh the superficial issues he was stuck on. If Methos hadn’t fallen so hard for MacLeod when they first met, he might have lost his heart to Joe himself once they’d become closer friends after the Calas business. Dawson’s courage and unwavering loyalty were rare enough in this world. To find them in equal measure with compassion and humor was unheard of. Joe was truly a gift to be cherished…if a person were wise enough to recognize the diamond in the rough before them – which Grace apparently was, if her next comment was anything to judge by.

“Please…don’t make me beg,” Grace pleaded.

“Why would you want this? I mean…have you any idea what I look like without clothes on? I been here before, Grace. They always swear they can handle it, but the minute my…differences are bared to the light, it’s a whole nother story.”

What it took for his friend to say those words, Methos couldn’t imagine.

He wasn’t even aware that he was holding his breath until he felt it rush out of him when Grace calmly assured, “I can handle it.”

“Wha-what’re you doin’?” Joe nearly squawked. “Grace! Ohhh, God…Grace…”

Methos smiled at the metallic djhurr of a zipper being undone and the unmistakable sounds of pleasure that followed. Looked like Joe wasn’t going to have to wait for the hot springs for that relaxation, he observed, ridiculously happy for his old friend.

The air long having dried him, Methos shivered and looked over at Mac lying so still on the bed.

“Maybe some good has come out of this, after all,” Methos said.

Knowing what was going on just a few yards outside his window raised a stabbing sense of isolation in Methos. He wasn’t expecting it, so it caught him off guard. Needing to be held more than he had in centuries, he stared longingly at the tiny space at the edge of Mac’s bed, then hesitantly stretched out alongside his oblivious lover. Wrapping his arms around MacLeod’s curled length, Methos spooned himself to the other man’s body and just held tight for the longest time. He didn’t know if he had the right to do this when Mac was unconscious, but right now he just needed the closeness.

“Happy anniversary,” he whispered, softly kissing the hair at Mac’s temple.

And then his own tears were falling as Joe’s had a few minutes ago, silently soaking the soft hair beneath his cheek as he desperately clung to the only comfort he’d found in this world.

********************

As the days dragged slowly by, becoming weeks, Methos’ sense of isolation only increased. It couldn’t be blamed on his companions, for both Joe and Grace went to great lengths to spend time with Methos and buoy his spirits, but there was just something about the dynamics of being trapped with two people who were hopelessly in love with each other that weighed on a heavy heart.

That wasn’t to say that Methos wasn’t glad for them. He’d never seen Joe Dawson so relaxed or happy; while Grace seemed to glow with an inner joy that made her twice as lovely. But the happiness his friends had found with each other only seemed to accentuate the fact that Duncan was no closer to consciousness than he’d been when they’d rescued him from Longford.

On some level, Methos had expected Mac’s recovery to take this long. As Duncan’s lover, he was more than willing to wait it out, however long it took. But as the sixth week of their confinement gave way to the seventh with no end in sight, Methos’ conscience began to weigh on him again. Neither Joe nor Grace had voiced a single complaint about the length of time this was taking, but both his friends were making more frequent trips into town to use the phone or the computer in Combloux’s cyber-café to take care of their personal business.

Joe had been on a leave of absence from the Watchers for nearly two months now. God only knew how his tavern in Seacouver was doing. Mike managed the place for Joe whenever MacLeod’s seasonal move to Paris took Dawson overseas for the winter, but Joe had been here in France for more than sixteen months now. Mike couldn’t hold down the fort forever.

As for Grace…Methos had no way of judging how this extended absence was affecting her life. He’d heard her talking to Joe about moving her work to Seacouver or Paris to be with him, so if she had that kind of freedom, perhaps being stuck here in the abbey wasn’t as great an issue for her, but Methos knew that Joe would be suffering if Dawson didn’t start taking care of business again soon.

If nothing else, Joe would lose control of the Watchers again, and that was a situation Methos would do almost anything to avoid. As long as Joe Dawson was in charge, the Watchers would be the benign recorders of Immortal history they’d been set up to be. Without a man as honorable as Joe at the helm, there was no telling what that powerful, clandestine organization might devolve into. Horton’s death squads were too recent a phenomenon for Methos to feel comfortable leaving the Watchers without Joe’s guidance.

So…the time had come to set his friends free so that they could get on with their lives, Methos sadly acknowledged as he removed the roast he was preparing from the oven.

He smiled as he heard the Land Rover pull to a stop outside the cottage and felt Grace’s familiar presence. Joe and Grace were right on time returning from their jaunt into the nearby ski town to collect the mail from their postbox and pick up supplies. Grace’s melodic giggle seemed to echo through the ruined old abbey like lark song as Joe made her laugh over something.

Methos was going to miss the sound of their laughter and their bright company, but he couldn’t keep them here forever.

“Ah, you’re right on time,” Methos smiled as the pair exploded into the cottage, filling the small space with their excitement and cold air.

“Hi, Adam,” Grace greeted with a huge grin. Her light blue turtleneck set off her pink cheeks beautifully.

“How’s it going, guy?” Joe’s smile was equally broad as he stood beside her in a light gray fleece and jeans.

The pheromones pouring off the pair were almost visible in the quaint kitchen’s air.

Wondering just what they’d got up to in his Land Rover, Methos grinned back.

With practiced familiarity, they moved around each other in the claustrophobically small kitchen as Methos strained the broccoli while Grace and Joe put the groceries away.

“That smells divine,” Grace said, taking a deep whiff of the fragrant roast.

“We’re famished,” Joe reported, stopping behind Grace to peer over her shoulder at the contents of the pan on the kitchen table. Dawson switched both his canes to his left hand, encircling Grace’s waist with his right to hug her from behind.

Recalling the dozens of times Duncan or he had done that to each other, Methos just enjoyed watching them being happy together. They moved like they were made for each other. Grace turned her head to look up at Joe, and his lips were right there to meet hers, fitting as naturally together as Mac’s and his had.

As if recalled to their present company, the pair parted with a start.

Pleasantly flushed, Grace gave Joe’s hand a squeeze and said, “I’ll be right back,” before disappearing into the bathroom.

“Sorry,” Joe said, blushing as he met Methos’ gaze.

“Nothing to apologize for,” Methos assured. “It’s good to see you so happy.”

“I didn’t come here to party,” Joe said, looking guilty of all things.

“We take joy where we find it, Joe. That’s what life is for. If we didn’t…what would be the point?” Methos said. “You’ve done more than any friend could ask for; you deserve a little happiness.”

Joe seemed to hesitate for a moment before he softly confided, “It’s not just a little happiness. It, ah, might sound absurd, considerin’ my age, but…I’ve never felt this way before. In the past, it was never longer than a week or two before they’d start getting’ that trapped look in their eyes, but…it’s been over a month now and…she’s still here…still smilin’ at me. It’s like…like my lack of legs doesn’t matter to her.”

Methos felt his throat tighten up. “It’s who you are that matters to her, Joe, what you give her. Believe me, when you live as long as we do, when you’re lucky enough to find the real thing, you hold onto it, no matter the cost.”

“You think I’m her real thing?” Joe asked, his hope so apparent it was heartbreaking.

“I think you’d need to ask Grace about that,” Methos started to say more, but stopped as he realized that Chandell’s familiar Immortal presence wasn’t nearly as far away as it had been a minute ago.

“If you have to ask, then I must be doing something wrong,” Grace said, coming up beside an uncomfortable looking Joe. The undisguised love in Grace’s smile seemed to cure that in a moment. Slipping her arm around Dawson’s waist, the petite Immortal hooked herself under his arm, acting as an organic support for the legless Watcher. “He makes a seven-hundred year old woman feel like a schoolgirl and has to ask if he’s the real thing,” Grace clucked, shaking her head as she squeezed Joe tighter. “I guess I should be happy he doesn’t know how special he is or I’d be fighting the women off with a stick!”

“Grace!” Joe protested, going scarlet.

“It’s true,” she insisted.

Chuckling, Methos let the couple argue as he turned back towards the potatoes he was mashing.

“Here, let me get that,” Joe said, taking the heavy potato dish from Methos when he was done and carrying it to the table…to escape the no-doubt embarrassing discussion.

Grace gave Methos a huge smile and shook her head in exasperation, the love she felt for Dawson just pouring off her as she followed her lover to the tiny kitchen table where they took their meals together.

The next twenty minutes or so passed in relative silence as they filled their plates and stomachs. Methos was going to miss this. In the past month, they’d become very much a small family.

“You should have seen Combloux today. Eight tourist buses arrived at the same time. The streets were as crowded as Paris, with just as few people speaking French as there,” Grace laughed.

“Speaking of Paris,” Methos jumped on the opening he’d been waiting for, “are you missing it?”

Grace blinked in surprise.

By unspoken agreement, they all avoided discussing the conveniences and friends they were doing without while here at the abbey.

Her brown eyes swept Joe’s way before returning to Methos as she answered, “Not really. St. Bernard’s has much more to offer than anyplace I can think of right now.”

“What about you, Joe? It’s been a long time since you put in an appearance at your tavern,” Methos reminded.

Joe lowered his fork. “Subtle you ain’t. What’s goin’ on here? You getting’ tired of us?”

Methos gave an instant, negative shake of his head. “Never. It’s just…”

“Yes?” Grace prompted after exchanging a quick glance with Joe.

“I think it’s clear to us all now that Duncan isn’t recovering as quickly as we’d hoped. We’ve been here almost two months and…I know how much you both sacrificed to help out here. Maybe the time has come for you to return to your lives…” Methos trailed off, unable to continue in the face of their obvious shock. He’d had more strength once. Not so long ago, there was nothing he wasn’t able to walk away from and never see again. Yet, telling these two cherished friends to leave now was taking almost all the strength he had.

“And leave you and Mac alone on this godforsaken mountain?” Joe gaped. “That’s just not happening, buddy, so don’t even go there.”

“Joe…” Methos started.

“Don’t Joe me! You said yourself that Mac’s no better. How could we possibly leave you alone up here?” Joe demanded.

Methos’ heart warmed at Joe’s loyalty. The man was one of a kind. He’d stood beside Methos through Hell this last year, and, at a point where most people would welcome an escape route, Joe was volunteering for another tour of duty. Methos was very aware of the fact that Joe hadn’t said that he didn’t want to go, but the idea of abandoning his friends in a time of need simply wasn’t in Joe Dawson’s character makeup.

“I wouldn’t be alone. Mac is here--”

“Mac is unconscious,” Grace reminded.

Methos nodded, spearing them both with his gaze as he voiced the truth they all had been hiding from, himself more than anyone, “And will likely remain so for some time to come. Can’t you see? I can’t ask you to waste months or years of your lives--”

“It’s not wasted,” Joe insisted. “We--”

“You have lives to live and a new love to explore,” Methos countered. “I’m not going to kid you or myself. What’s wrong with Duncan could take years to rectify.”

“We knew that when we signed on, Meth—Adam,” Joe quickly corrected himself.

“And I appreciate your loyalty and devotion,” Methos said. Realizing that he was never going to convince his stalwart friend to just go, he switched tactics, “But…you might help me more by leaving now.”

“How could our runnin’ out on you ever help?” Joe questioned.

“It wouldn’t be running out. Right now I am still happy just to have Duncan back here alive. I don’t mind being here with him alone or taking care of him. If I had to, I could do it for decades.” Which was good, because they all knew that was the prospect they were facing, Methos thought. “But…the time may come in the future when I need a break. If we are all three here, draining ourselves on a constant basis, we’re all going to tire at once. If you were to leave now and return to your lives, I wouldn’t feel too guilty about asking you to take over for me for brief periods of respite.”

“He has a point, Joe,” Grace entered the discussion, her serious expression telling Methos how troubled she was by the entire idea. “There will come a point when a break will be necessary for anyone involved in this intense a level of care-taking. If we all burn out at the same time, there won’t be anyone to take over.”

“But…” Joe started.

“I’m not saying I don’t want to see either of you. Should you stay in France, I’d look forward to your visits with bated breath, but I just don’t think it’s sensible for all of us to be imprisoned here.”

“What are you going to do about food?” Joe demanded, prosaic as ever. “You can’t leave him alone to do the shopping. It’s a two-hour roundtrip to the grocery store. If you leave Mac alone for that long, another Immortal could just drag him off sacred ground and take his head.”

“I spoke to Werner down the road – the man who does the care-taking around the abbey for me. He agreed to stop in and pick up my list on his weekly grocery run,” Methos supplied.

“You’ve thought of everything – haven’t you?” Joe said, looking none too pleased.

Methos tilted his head in acknowledgement, a wry smile touching his lips, “I’ve been told it’s my forte. Joe, it’s not that I don’t want your company, it’s just…you’re mortal. Your time here is all the more precious. You and Grace have found something special. You need to give that a chance to grow. Cabin fever can kill the best of relationships. Why take the risk? And then there’s the Watch--” Methos broke off, horrified by the magnitude of the mistake he’d nearly made. He was so comfortable in Grace’s company that he often forgot how little she knew about them both.

Joe’s next line was hardly surprising, considering how hard he’d fallen for the lovely Immortal at his side, “It’s okay. I told Grace about the Watchers.”

Methos nodded, relieved that he hadn’t broken that trust. “You know you can’t stay away much longer without being replaced and there’s no way you can run things effectively in a place with no phone or internet service.”

Joe gave a slow nod and then suggested, “I could give it up.”

“No, you couldn’t. The Watchers Organization needs a decent man like you at its helm. And you need your life back,” Methos insisted.

“You and Mac are a major part of that life,” Joe argued.

“I know. That means more to us than I can say. But loving us doesn’t require sacrificing everything for us. Please, go build something wonderful with Grace here. Come back to visit me in joy,” Methos pleaded.

“Here’s your hat and what’s your hurry, huh? I don’t like this, Meth-Adam, I don’t like it one bit,” Joe said. With a flair that would have been worthy of Mac at his most impossible, Dawson got up from the table and left the room as swiftly as his shamble allowed.

In the silence that followed, Methos looked over at Grace.

She was sitting there with the calm that had typified her from the first, watching him out of those incredible sloe eyes.

He felt so bad about upsetting Joe that he couldn’t hold her gaze. He looked down instead at the wreck of his mashed potatoes.

“I didn’t mean to hurt him,” Methos said softly, wondering if she thought him the ungrateful prick he felt at the moment.

“I know,” Grace assured.

“It’s just, his time is so short. He’s finally found something good. This last year has been so hard on him…”

“Adam.”

Methos hesitantly raised his gaze from his plate.

“You’re right. Whether he’ll admit it or not, the isolation is getting to Joe. He needs a break…so do I, to be honest.”

Appreciating her candor, Methos relaxed enough to ask, “Will you stay with him once you leave here?”

He wasn’t child enough to assume that simply because Joe and Grace clicked that they would form the lasting tie Dawson needed. Methos was only too aware how what looked like the real thing when you were trapped alone on a desert island could turn into a ball and chain once you were returned to your normal life.

Grace didn’t even seem upset by his inquiry. To the contrary, her face softened with understanding. “I’ll stay with him as long as he’ll have me. He’s…a most extraordinary man. I never expected to find real love again, never so soon after Paul, but….”

“It happens when you least expect it?” Methos suggested.

“Yes. Was that how it was for you and Duncan?”

Methos studied her serene features, not understanding how anyone who’d been fortunate enough to have Duncan MacLeod as a lover could possibly be so calm discussing his transfer of affections to someone else. But then, she and Mac had parted more than a century ago, and she had Joe Dawson in her life now, so perhaps she could be that generous.

Whatever the case, Methos appreciated the opportunity to be frank about his feeling for MacLeod. Even with Joe, there was only so much his old friend wanted to hear.

Giving a guarded nod, Methos admitted, “I was lost from the moment I first laid eyes on him.”

“He’s a lucky man,” Grace smiled.

“So is Joe,” Methos countered.

“No, I’m the lucky one,” Grace said. “Don’t worry about him. I’ll take care of him for you.”

“Thank you,” Methos bowed his head as he would have at court five hundred years ago in the presence of his liege.

“No, thank you, Ad…that isn’t your real name – is it? A dozen times a day Joe starts to call you something else and then stops himself,” Grace laughed. “Is there a reason you don’t use your real name among your own kind?”

Methos gave a slow nod, evaluating the possible dangers of this conversation. After a moment, he said only “Yes,” and waited for the inevitable question – which did not come.

When the silence felt like it would stretch into infinity, he cast his fate to the proverbial winds. If he could trust his secret to Amanda, he could certainly take a chance with this lovely healer. But much would depend on her familiarity with the legend. Not all Immortals knew of the oldest man.

Taking a chance he never would have dared ten years ago, Methos quietly offered, “I am Methos.”

“Meth…” her eyes bulged in shock. “Dear God.”

“I’m not quite as old as that,” Methos joked, nervous as he always was after making such a disclosure.

To his surprise, the dozens of questions that naturally followed that announcement weren’t voiced. Instead, Grace reached across the table, took his hand and just squeezed it. “No wonder the time it’s taking Duncan to heal hasn’t fazed you.”

“It has fazed me, Grace, believe me, but…what other choice have I?”

Her other hand rose to encircle his captured one. For the longest time, she simply sat there holding onto him.

Finally, Methos was forced to speak. “Usually, when I make that revelation, there are a thousand questions that follow.”

“I’ve survived seven-hundred years, Methos,” she spoke his name slowly, as if sampling all its nuances. “I know what the flow of time does to a person. I’ve had students who’ve hounded me for advice and insight. I won’t bother you that way. Besides,” and here she turned on that magnificent smile of hers, “you’ve already answered the Sixty-four Thousand Dollar, Meaning of Life question for me.”

“I have?” Methos started, having no clue as to what she was referring to. “When?”

“Every day when I watch you with Duncan. The most important thing in the oldest Immortal’s world is love.” She gave his trapped hand another squeeze.

“Grace…” In another world and time, he could have loved her, Methos recognized, his eyes pricking with tears of gratitude.

As if sensing how much he didn’t want to breakdown in front of her, Grace gave another smile and lightly announced, “I’m going to go talk to Joe. We’ll go back down to Comboux tomorrow and make plane reservations to leave for Paris next Monday. We can probably get a taxi to pick us up at your friend Werner’s down the road.”

Methos nodded, doing his best to pull himself together. He wasn’t accustomed to people surprising him this way.

“You’ll be staying in Paris then?” Methos questioned.

“I think so. Joe is comfortable there. There’s a large community of Blues lovers and….”

“You’ll be close?” Methos could almost read her mind.

“Yes. Precisely.”

“Grace?”

“Yes?” she smiled.

“Thank you…for everything.”

She gave a firm shake of her head. “No, thank you. You don’t know what meeting Joe has meant to me.”

Standing up, she gave Methos’ forehead a quick peck and then hurried off to the room she’d shared with Joe these last few weeks.

*******************

The day after Grace and Joe flew off for Paris, winter seemed to close in around the abbey with a vengeance. It happened that way in the mountains. One morning, there would be only a couple of inches of snow on the ground, the air would be chilly, but manageable, then the next day, the winds would howl down from the Alps like a wailing banshee, the temperature would drop to a cold so intense it would freeze the nose hairs, and the dark storm clouds would pelt the ground with snow and ice. By solstice week, there was over four feet of snow on the ground, and it was still falling steadily.

There was no quiet quite so complete as that of a snowbound cottage, Methos thought as he stared out the bedroom window at the barrage of flakes pouring down from the sky above, watching the dying of the light. The abbey wall out back was over fifteen feet tall at its highest point to the east, running down in a jagged line to just about eight feet at its lowest point to the south. Normally that lichen stained, gray rock wall and the hedgerow in front of it predominated the view, but this evening, the wall and hedge were nearly invisible. Coated in snow, they faded into the uninterrupted white with the rose bushes, trees and boulders that were now only anonymous white bulges in a colorless landscape. Even the mountains were gone now.

Methos sighed, his mind wandering back to the countless years he’d watched through his glassless casement window in the abbey, shuddering in his brown robes as the snow ate those same mountains. It was strange. When he’d first come to St. Bernard’s all those centuries ago, he’d been a complete wreck, totally shattered by the castration he hadn’t been able to avoid. The tissue regeneration hadn’t hurt, but it had been a gruelingly slow process. Yet, when he thought back on those days now, it wasn’t the horror of his mutilated body that he recalled most, but the peace of the place that had offered him sanctuary. Even when he’d been freezing in an unlighted, unheated tiny monk’s cell, there had been something special about the abbey that had healed his soul.

It was the power of the place, of course. Three of the Earth’s ley lines intersected beneath the hot springs and chapel. St. Bernard’s was the psychic equivalent of a super-battery to those sensitive to such things, and Methos had always been extremely so. Now that the solstice was upon them, the energy of the abbey was almost unbearably intense. It would fade as it always did to a bearable level once the solstice passed, but right now the power was so enhanced that it was practically tingling along Methos’ skin.

Myrddid used to cast his greatest spells on nights like this. A vivid image of his former teacher flashed into Methos’ mind. Even with his eyes wide open, staring out that window at the blank whiteness of the blizzard raging outside, Methos could see the Immortal, whom history touted as the greatest sorcerer of all time, sitting beside their hearth, his long silver hair and the skin of his angular face tinged orange from the dancing flames as his slender fingers danced across the harp in his lap, while Myrddid’s mind and will used the simple tunes he played to affect changes in the world around him that modern science couldn’t explain or accept.

Stars, how he wished Myrddid were here now. If anyone could help Mac, it would be him. Methos had never seen healings like those the ancient sorcerer had manifested. In this place where time had stopped, Methos could hear Myrddid’s earthy chuckle, hear that sensual, deep voice telling him on that Beltaine night millennia past, “On a night such as this, my son, magic will work itself. You need only open yourself to the Mystery’s will to be her vessel….”

That voice was so clear that Methos swore the man was right here with him now. He could almost feel that ancient presence ringing through the bedroom. Shivering despite the perfectly comfortable temperature, Methos stared around the room, half expecting to see that tall, ghostly specter standing in the doorway in his robe of raven and crow feathers.

But Myrddid wasn’t there. His bones were buried beneath the stone bearing his name in his beloved Wales, where Methos had left him after the Goth general Darius had taken his Quickening, changing Methos’ life and the world forever. The greatest sorcerer ever was dead. Only his apprentice remained, the student who’d been more interested in the mysteries he’d explored in his master’s bed than those wonders the ancient magician had struggled to impart to him. And like all laggards, Methos now had cause to regret his inattention, on this night when the power was playing along his skin like an electric charge, when magic would work itself for those with the skill and the nerve.

Methos knew his skill to be questionable, but his nerve….

He turned from the empty bedroom doorway to stare at the room’s only other inhabitant. Duncan lay curled on his right side on the hospital bed, facing Methos, the Highlander’s features as perfect as if carved from marble, and just as animated as that cold stone.

Maybe Joe was right in his warning that Methos was going to crack from the solitude, the pragmatist in him recognized. It hadn’t even been three weeks since Grace and Joe left, and already he was searching for fast cures to a problem that he knew was going to take a monumental amount of time to right itself. But…he missed Duncan so damn much, missed his laughter, missed his touch; hell, he even missed the pig-headed determination that drove him to distraction at times. Methos would give his life to have this impossible man returned to normal.

And the ability to do so was just within his grasp…if he had the nerve to reach for it.

The power was playing along his skin in a visceral temptation, while Myrddid’s voice whispered in his ear…and Duncan lay there on the bed like a marionette with cut strings. Gazing at that insensible profile, Methos couldn’t help but wonder what it could hurt to try. MacLeod was Immortal. Whatever Methos did, it wouldn’t kill Duncan. If he failed, Mac would probably just continue to lie there like Sleeping Beauty for the next hundred years or so, the same as he was doing now. What could it hurt? How much worse could Duncan get?

The answer to his question flashed into his mind, a clear picture of the alien expression on his drinking buddy Gareth’s face as a changeling stared at Methos out of Gareth’s eyes. He knew how dangerous what he was contemplating was. Myrddid had always stressed how perilous it could be for the untrained to tamper with the Mystery. All manner of beings were attracted by the use of magic. If he weren’t careful, Methos could very well find a stranger staring at him out of his lover’s eyes…or he could do everything right and affect the kind of healing Myrddid had been famous for. Mac could open his eyes, smile at him and pull him down into that bed. They could be making lover before dawn and supping with Joe and Grace on Christmas day at the end of the week.

If he had the nerve to do this.

He wasn’t untutored, Methos reminded himself. He’d spent over eighty years at Myrddid’s side, more than fifty of those years as his student. He’d seen and done things no human - or Immortal – would believe possible. He knew how his master had worked. Myrddid had always insisted that he had a natural talent for these arts, he remembered, choosing not to recall how his master had always amended that line with a warning as to why it was all the more important for one such as he to learn discipline.

He had the knowledge; he had the nerve, as for power…with the way the world was thrumming tonight, Methos might have called Myrddid back from the dead were that his goal.

Power like this, it longed to be used. If Methos didn’t work his spell now, it would be Beltaine before the energy ran this strong again. Imbolc would be in a few more weeks, of course, but the power wasn’t as high then as it was on the solstice and Beltaine. So, it was tonight or a five-month wait before he could duplicate tonight’s conditions.

Methos had never considered himself a gambler. A year ago, he would never have considered trying something this risky, but a year ago he’d been sane. The eight months he’d spent enduring his nightly horror-show of his entombed lover screaming in agony had broken something in him. The last two months had restored some of his stability, but…he was hanging on by a thread. He knew it, even if he’d fooled Grace and Joe.

And, deep down inside, Methos knew that this had been his plan all along; why else would he have brought Myrddid’s harp up here when he’d retrieved Joe’s guitars? For nearly fifteen hundred years, he’d been afraid to be in the same room with that harp, but there it sat in its ancient travel bag beside their empty suitcases on the far side of the room, calling to Methos’ blood the same way the power did.

For a long time, Methos stood by the darkening window, staring over at MacLeod as he measured his courage.

In the end, he did what he always did when faced with temptation – he crumbled. Seventeen-hundred years ago this very same weakness had plunged the world into its last dark age, no matter what Myrddid had said to the contrary. A wise man would heed that lesson and leave the harp where it was, but a wise man would never have revealed his feelings to Duncan MacLeod in the first place.

His mind set, Methos turned MacLeod onto his opposite side and then left the room to prepare himself.

Methos returned three hours later. He performed his usual nightly tasks: changed Duncan, settled his lover on his other side so that he faced the window again, covered the comatose man against the night’s chill and washed his hands one more time. Only tonight when he was through, Methos didn’t return to his own pallet to sleep. Instead, he smudged the room with frankincense smoke to cleanse away all negativity, lit a white candle in all four of the room’s cardinal points, and then crossed the room to retrieve Myrddid’s harp from its worn travel bag.

Methos trembled as he bent to unwrap the instrument from the sheepskin it was swaddled in. The energy swirling through the candlelit room had increased astronomically at the unveiling of Myrddid’s harp. He stared at the ancient clarsach, as ever astounded by the power the unimpressive instrument possessed. Small and dark, the tiny harp looked completely worthless, but Methos knew that this unprepossessing collection of wood and bronze strings was worth more than any of the kingdoms he’d ruled or sacked.

His courage almost failed him as he came face to face with the harp, but sensing how the power in the room seemed to almost draw a proverbial breath in anticipation, he reached down and picked it up. As ever, once he actually touched the thing, there was no turning back.

He took a seat on the straight-backed wooden chair he’d left beside Mac’s bed. Taking a deep breath, Methos cleared his mind of all worries and concerns. When he felt relaxed enough, he approached the hard part, the actual working of his spell. He could almost feel Myrddid standing beside him, counseling him. Focus and intent, those were the keys. Keep it short and sweet, for the most effective spells were perforce the simplest. The more complicated the request, the more places it could go awry. So, Methos fixed on his goal and reduced his spell to its barest bones – Mac conscious. That was it. Nothing more complicated than a minor miracle, he wryly acknowledged as he stared at the oblivious man in the bed, the man who hadn’t opened his eyes in the two months he’d been free.

He tested the harp’s tuning. As on the barge, the instrument was in perfect tune, even though it had been nearly sixteen centuries since a tuning key had touched it.

And then Methos started playing the ancient tune that Myrddid had used to wake dragons once upon a time.

Methos was barely aware of how the simple twelve-note modal tune grew in volume as his fingers danced that near-forgotten waltz with those cold metal strings. The power grew and pulsed around him, almost visible to his half closed eyes. Methos focused his entire being on his two-word Mac-conscious spell, drawing the energy from the ley lines into himself, becoming the Mystery’s vessel, allowing it to work its will through him, hoping that his will and the Mystery’s would become one.

Though less than a half-hour passed as he played, the strain of concentrating so completely on his goal was exhausting, but not nearly as draining as opening himself to the power and becoming a living conduit to its force was. His nerves felt engorged as the charge sizzled through him. But Kronos and Myrddid had trained him well. Methos knew how to ignore pain, how to take it and make it part of his focus.

His spell built to an unbearable crescendo, and then peaked like an orgasm. Unlike weather-working, there was no wind or thunder to commemorate his healing spell’s manifestation. Methos felt it on a psychic level as a sudden burst of focused energy. The ley power flashed through him, to fill and affect every molecule in the room, altering the current plane of reality to mirror Methos’ will, as it had danced to Myrddid’s bidding all those centuries ago.

He gasped at the stupendous rush of energy, holding his breath as it passed and the power in the room slowly settled down to something resembling a normal time-continuum. As Methos sat there with his eyes closed in the psychic aftermath, nearly too afraid to open them, the conundrum of Shroedinger’s cat filled his mind. Would the cat be alive or dead when the physicist opened that box? Would Duncan be conscious or comatose when Methos opened his eyes?

Unable to bear the uncertainty another moment, Methos opened his eyes…just in time to catch sight of Duncan MacLeod doing the same. Those impossibly long fans of eyelashes parted…and for the first time in over ten months, Methos stared into the sensual brown eyes that had made his world complete.

“Duncan?” he called in a tremulous whisper, shaking so hard that the harp was in danger of falling from his hands.

MacLeod didn’t turn his head at the sound of his name. The open eyes didn’t move from the point they were staring at in the middle distance.

Dropping the harp to the area rug on the floor, Methos hunched over the bed, placing himself in MacLeod’s direct line of sight.

“Mac?”

The stare didn’t waver.

Methos jerked his hand towards MacLeod’s eyes…the Highlander neither flinched nor blinked.

“Please…no….” Methos begged, shaking the unresponsive man’s shoulders in his despair.

There was no start to consciousness, no demand that Methos stop jerking him. Duncan just lay there like a wax sculpture and, after a few, insane minutes, Methos stopped shaking his friend.

Life was nothing if not lessons learned. And Methos had never learned the easy way.

This was what Myrddid had attempted to pound into his thick skull sixteen-hundred years ago; this was why one didn’t meddle with magic. You got what you asked for. Always. Averlin had gotten his beloved Gareth back from the dead, more or less. And Methos had gotten Mac conscious. It had never occurred to Methos to tag on the addendum and in full possession of his faculties onto his spell. He supposed that that…clarity of vision was what separated the apprentices from the true adepts.

But all of that was meaningless to him as he stared into the path of that unseeing gaze. His dreams shattering around him, Methos was too exhausted to have any hope of control. His disappointment exploded from his eyes in a burst of burning tears that was as fierce as the spike of power that had affected this healing…if healing it even was. Sobbing, he buried his wet face in the duvet covering MacLeod’s chest and cried his heart out as his oblivious lover’s unfocused gaze stared past his left shoulder.

Two, perhaps three hours later, Methos raised his head, almost afraid that he’d find Duncan back in his comatose sleep. But the flickering light of the near-gutted candles revealed Mac’s eyes to be open, if no more alert than before.

Although Methos couldn’t tell what was going on with MacLeod, the one thing he did know was that he hadn’t screwed up completely. Duncan’s Immortal signature was unchanged. Methos mightn’t have affected a complete healing, but at least he hadn’t called up a doppelganger. And, conscious was a lot better than insensible. This was an improvement; that was what he had to focus on. The rest would come in time.

Telling himself that over and over again, Methos stared down at those beautiful, somber features, trying not to be unnerved by the distant gaze.

Forcing a smile, Methos tried for as much cheer as he could manage. It wasn’t much, but Mac didn’t seem to be in a complaining mood tonight, he ironically noted.

“Welcome back,” he said softly, hoping that the sound of his voice might attract Mac’s attention, but MacLeod’s stare never wavered. “I’m sorry my reaction wasn’t better before. It’s…been a hard year, Mac. But it’s going to improve now that you’re awake. We’ll just give it a bit more time, shall we?”

Affecting not to notice Mac’s lack of response, Methos continued with, “I’m just going to clean up this place a bit, then I’ll be right back.”

Rising from the hospital bed, Methos arched his tired back, then bent down to retrieve Myrddid’s harp from where it lay on its side on the maroon, white and black Oriental rug. He could still feel the power coursing through its innocuous looking body. A more arrogant practitioner might have sat down with that harp and given it another try, but Methos was wise enough not to press his luck. If Myrddid were here, his master might have walked him through the process until he reached a successful outcome, but there wasn’t anybody alive these days with that kind of training. Most were charlatans and those rare few with legitimate talent…they didn’t know even as much as Methos. It truly was a different world than the one Myrddid and Artos had walked.

Methos’ mind shied away from even the thought of his dead friend’s name. There were some memories that could never be revisited.

Sighing, he wrapped the harp back up in its sheepskin and then stored it safely out of sight in its travel bag.

He paused to blow out the two candles that were seconds away from expiring on their own. As the last one puffed out, Methos watched the gray smoke drift lazily up to the ceiling and tried to deal with his disappointment.

Mac’s eyes were open now. He had no way of knowing how much his lover was actually absorbing, so from this point on, Methos was determined to present only a positive environment. No more bawling his eyes out, no more feeling sorry for himself. Mac was awake now. That was a hell of an improvement from this morning.

Returning to the bed, Methos paused before the IV feed that was keeping MacLeod hydrated.

“I don’t think you’ll be needing this anymore,” Methos said before carefully detaching the IV from Mac’s boarded left wrist. He unwrapped the tape afterwards to remove the board…and felt himself smiling as he caught sight of the needle’s puncture point and the black and blue bruises around it healing up. There was definitely something to be said for having an Immortal for a patient.

After disposing of the IV paraphernalia in the trash can on the other side of the room, Methos stared at his cot, then back at Mac in the hospital bed.

He still didn’t know how Mac was going to feel about him when his lover was back in his right mind. He knew he didn’t have the right to take any liberties here and yet…it hurt so much to be this close to Mac and not be allowed to touch.

Methos approached Mac’s bed like a penitent, feeling like…he didn’t know what. When he’d been a conscienceless murderer, he’d never experienced these kinds of qualms. He stared down at Mac’s strong, handsome features. The dark hair was longer now, almost touching Mac’s shoulders. With his eyes open, MacLeod looked very much himself. But there was still no one home behind that faraway gaze.

For etiquette’s sake, Methos softly asked, “Do you mind if I bunk in with you tonight, Duncan?”

Mac didn’t answer, but he didn’t refuse him, either. There was a time when silence was considered equitable to assent.

Still feeling like some kind of criminal, Methos climbed into the narrow bed behind his friend. He laid an arm over Mac’s trim waist and spooned himself up close. Lulled by Mac’s steady breathing and his companion’s familiar scent, Methos found himself relaxing in spite of the night’s disappointments. His eyes drooping shut, he gave himself over to sleep.

********************

The bedroom was whiter than the sands in Death Valley at high noon. Wincing as he opened his eyes to the blindingly bright light, Methos was temporarily puzzled as to where he was and how long he’d slept. The back of Duncan’s head filling his vision answered his first question. Sitting up, Methos peered over Mac’s shoulder at the window to discover the answer to his second.

It had finally stopped snowing. More than that, the mountains were back, even if the abbey and garden were still a white blur. The sun was beating down on that white carpet mercilessly, bouncing off the snow to fill the bedroom with so much light that it felt like they were trapped inside a lightbulb.

Methos peered over Mac’s broad shoulder to see his friend’s face. The Highlander’s eyes were open. There’d been a part of Methos that had feared his lover would fail to wake once he fell back to sleep again, but those brown eyes were wide and appeared rested. They also seemed to be a bit more focused this morning. Methos followed the direction of Mac’s stare, smiling as he realized his companion appeared to be watching the rainbow spectrum of light the sunshine was making on the far wall as it passed through the enormous icicle hanging just outside their window.

“Good morning, Mac,” Methos greeted, leaning over to brush a chaste kiss on the nearby cheek. It was how he’d greeted Duncan every morning for the last two months. Methos saw no reason to alter his patterns just because Mac’s eyes were open. He planned on continuing until MacLeod requested that he change his habits. “How did you sleep?”

There was no answer, not that Methos was really expecting one.

His bladder making a nuisance of itself, Methos hauled himself out of bed with a groan. He hated mornings with a passion.

About to dash for the bog, he stopped, realizing that Mac was conscious now and, therefore, far more subject to discomfort.

It must be love, Methos thought as he moved to the dresser where the diapers were stacked, not understanding his happy mood.

Back at the bed, he knew a moment’s discomfort. He was used to just changing the unconscious Duncan when necessary. But pulling someone’s hospital gown up and removing the only thing covering the gonads while that person’s eyes were wide open was another situation entirely.

“I’ll change you now – all right?” Methos questioned, once again feeling like some kind of criminal.

Getting back into that silence-is-assent groove that he’d started to develop last night, Methos reached for Mac’s gown. He moved slowly, so as not to jar or startle. He needn’t have worried. Mac seemed just as oblivious to having his diaper opened as he had the previous morning.

It was actually Methos who gave a start. There hadn’t been a single day yet when Mac had woken up with a perfectly dry and clean diaper. Which meant….

“Perhaps we’d better get you to the bathroom, ey?” he smiled and quickly fetched from the room’s far corner the wheelchair he used to take Mac down to the hot springs.

“Up we go,” Methos encouraged, easing Mac into a sitting position. Methos guided those hairy legs off the side of the bed, then wrapped his arm around Mac’s waist to transfer him to the nearby wheelchair.

Methos had intended to simply swing Mac over to his chair, but halfway to his seat, MacLeod extended his legs, shifted away from Methos…and stood on his own two feet.

Mac wobbled as any man who hadn’t been out of bed for two months might, but the physical therapy Methos had been performing on his friend had obviously been effective. Mac’s legs shook, but they held his weight up.

His eyes stinging with joy, Methos wrapped his arm around Mac’s waist to support him, noting with a physician’s eye how Mac still wasn’t standing completely erect. He was stooped over like an old man – obviously as a result of his back muscles.

“You want to try it on your own?” Methos questioned. “We can do that.”

Hooking the back of the wheelchair with his free right hand, Methos rolled it behind them as they made their cautious way to the bathroom down the hall, moving slower than Joe Dawson with a hangover. Methos knew the progression had to be excruciating for Mac as his unused muscles were called upon to perform, but MacLeod’s face remained strangely blank, as removed from the physical discomfort as he’d been while in his coma.

It took over five minutes to make the trip, but MacLeod didn’t falter once. He just followed where Methos led. When they reached the tiny bathroom, Methos was forced to leave the wheelchair out in the hall, for there wasn’t enough room for two grown men and the chair inside the loo.

Methos lifted Mac’s light blue hospital gown and eased him down to sit on the commode.

To the best of Methos’ knowledge, Duncan’s gaze hadn’t focused on anything clearly yet. His lover seemed to stare in the direction of things, rather than directly at them. It almost seemed as though Mac were paying attention to something internal, like he were watching a movie in his mind or concentrating on something that Methos couldn’t see. But Mac must have had some sense of his surroundings, for a few moments after Methos sat his friend on the toilet, Duncan made use of the facilities in a gusty gush of sound.

“Yesss!” Methos laughed, almost giddy as the warm scent of urine filled the air.

As ever, Mac relieved himself in a powerful, noisy stream. Listening, Methos felt an absurd sense of glee that was akin to the feeling one experienced when a baby they were rearing took its first step.

Methos didn’t know what was going on with Mac mentally, but his friend was here on some level, that much was clear.

Weak with relief, Methos offered up a silent prayer of thanks and waited for MacLeod to finish his business.

When it seemed that Mac had done all he was going to there, Methos reached out and eased the Highlander back onto his feet. Placing his left arm around his lover’s way-too-slender waist to support him, Methos freed himself from the gray sweat pants he was wearing and took care of his own bursting bladder with his right hand. It was rather like one of those mornings on the barge when they couldn’t bear to let go of each other, when they’d stand there in front of the bowl like a pair of kids and have a pissing contest. Grinning, Methos recalled that Mac always won those.

Well, this was a new one even for a five-thousand-year-old man, Methos wryly acknowledged his own foibles. It wasn’t everyday someone waxed rhapsodic and became completely euphoric over another man taking a piss. He’d well and truly lost it. But, gods, he was happy, so incredibly happy.

Mac wasn’t back yet, but he was well on his way there.

Not needing to force his cheer, Methos told his silent companion, “I think we need to work your back muscles some more. Let’s go have breakfast, then I’ll give you another massage, okay?”

Meeting no protest, he led his unresisting friend out of the room.

*********************

The remainder of that day and those that followed were a time of exploration for Methos as he mapped out the limits of Mac’s responsiveness. It was a puzzling and vexing situation, for there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to what MacLeod would and wouldn’t do. Mostly, Mac just sat where he was left, his attention focused on some internal point. The only time MacLeod moved of his own volition was when he had to relieve himself. No matter where they were in the cottage or down in the hot springs below, if Mac had to use the facilities, he would get up and go to the bathroom, which to Methos’ mind implied a hell of an awareness of his outer surroundings. And yet, when through relieving himself, MacLeod would just sit on the commode until Methos came to reclaim him, as if he had no conscious control over himself.

It was the same when it came to eating. MacLeod’s appetite was healthy, but Methos had to put the food in his mouth or Mac would starve to death. Mac wasn’t a picky eater. He’d chew and swallow anything Methos made, but if Methos didn’t spoon-feed it to him, his meal would remain untouched on the Highlander’s plate.

Mac’s pliancy was what troubled Methos the most. Methos could strip the man, bring him into a hot shower or submerge him in the hot springs and there would be absolutely no response. He could bring a candle so close to Mac’s eyes that those long lashes nearly ignited, and MacLeod wouldn’t jerk his head back. He’d only close his eyes when the light became too intense, which Methos supposed was some type of gain.

As frustrating as Mac’s lack of initiative was, those following weeks were still a time of healing for Methos. His daily routine was fairly similar to what it had been since they’d come to St. Bernard’s. He spent the majority of his day doing bodywork on MacLeod or soaking with him in the hot springs downstairs, and the remainder of his time seeing to the thousand and one mundane tasks, like cooking, cleaning and laundry, that kept a household functioning. But now that Mac was mobile and theoretically conscious, the experience had expanded for Methos. He’d spent decades in monasteries. Silence didn’t bother him. It might be his imagination, but he felt that Mac was aware of him on some level and just not able to reach out yet.

Every day, Methos could see the changes in MacLeod. His friend’s physical condition improved on an almost daily basis. After those first few wobbly days, Mac was able to stand and walk on his own – which expanded their world considerably. When it wasn’t too cold outside, Methos would take Mac for brief walks around the abbey grounds to build up his stamina. On the inclement days, of which there were many, Methos read to his silent companion. And he found himself talking, nonstop, about anything and everything that came to mind: his past, Duncan’s past, the people Methos had known, the things he’d seen, how wonderful everything would be when Mac recovered. Methos talked about anything he could think of that might interest his friend, working his damnedest to try to lure MacLeod out of the never-never-land the Highlander was lost in.

Methos couldn’t say that his efforts were entirely unsuccessful. There were times when Mac really almost seemed to be listening to him, where that stare wasn’t entirely blank. But there was never anything like recognition in Duncan’s face, and those lucid moments passed so quickly Methos would barely be aware of them before they vanished.

Today was not one of those near-lucid instances, however, Methos reflected as he spread the onion he’d just finished chopping on top of the roast they were going to have for dinner. He glanced over at his silent companion, who was sitting in the chair at the corner of the kitchen table, staring off into the middle distance the same as ever.

Methos took some pride in how normal MacLeod looked now, if one ignored the blankness of his expression. Methos kept his lover clean-shaven the way Mac preferred. Their daily shower and the afternoons spent in the hot springs kept them both squeaky clean. Though the clothes he’d worn immediately before his abduction hung on this thinner Mac like an older brother’s hand-me-downs, MacLeod was fitting his older wardrobe perfectly. They were the clothes he’d worn a decade ago when he’d been with Tessa, before Mac had transformed his body into the perfect fighting machine. Methos was glad of the foresight he’d had in packing these older things. They were the only clothing that truly fit this flensed MacLeod.

But a stranger would never have known there was anything wrong with Mac looking at him now. Sitting there in his faded blue jeans and denim work shirt, with his longish hair pulled back, Mac was his handsome self again.

Catching sight of his own reflection in the silver teakettle on the stovetop, Methos had to smile. Mac might be looking normal these days, but Methos himself was a complete wreck. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a haircut. His dark, shaggy hair was as long as Mac’s now. He had it pulled back in a ponytail like MacLeod’s, but the style that looked perfectly neat and attractive on Mac, only made him appear unkempt.

Not that his clothes were helping that impression any. Unlike MacLeod, who had a complete wardrobe he’d outgrown to revert to, Methos didn’t. The twenty pounds he’d dropped in the past year had left him looking like a scarecrow in his loose jeans and henleys. Methos was eating again, but the pounds just didn’t seem to be coming back the way they should.

“We’ll take care of that tonight, hmmm?” Methos smiled as he put the roast in the oven and set the timer. “I’m making those mashed potatoes you liked so much the last time. They’re sure to put five pounds on us both.”

There was, of course, no response, but Methos wasn’t expecting one.

Their dinner preparations dealt with, he turned back to MacLeod. “Are you ready for your massage? I think those back muscles are almost back to normal now. You’re standing much straighter, but we’ll keep at it all the same – okay?”

If it wasn’t okay, Mac kept his opinion to himself as Methos hooked Mac’s elbows and guided him to his feet. Docile as a child, the somnambulist Highlander allowed himself to be led back to the bedroom.

This was always the hardest part, Methos thought, drawing in a deep breath as they stopped beside the four poster bed Methos had put back together right after Mac’s return to consciousness. Methos had no problem with shaving, bathing or dressing his oblivious lover, but when it came to taking Mac’s clothes off like this, Methos was always far too physically aware of his friend for his own peace of mind. It had been different when Mac was unconscious. Methos had had no trouble doing anything to his naked friend’s body, but now that Mac was dressed and mobile again, looking so damn normal, Methos’ libido was playing hell with him. They’d just undressed each other far too many times for Methos’ body to forget that. When they were standing face to face like this and Methos was unbuttoning Mac’s shirt or jeans, Methos was almost grateful for his companion’s mental fugue, for it spared him the embarrassment of having Mac note the painful hard-on that Methos got every single day at this exact moment.

This afternoon was no different. Mac was standing there beside the bed right where he’d been led, staring past Methos’ right shoulder at MacLeod only knew what in the sun-drenched bedroom. The minute Methos reached for the little white plastic buttons on that old blue denim shirt, his cock sprang to attention like an aching, organic lead pipe.

Deep breaths didn’t help, for they only carried Mac’s sweet scent. It filled Methos’ whole world, as it always had.

His fingers shaking with suppressed tension, Methos undid the final button on Mac’s shirt and slipped it off those broad shoulders, laying it gently on the abandoned wheelchair beside the bed.

He could barely breathe as he reached for the copper button of MacLeod’s jeans. Knowing that he needed to get himself under control fast or he’d be in deep trouble, Methos performed the reality check that had yet to fail. At that moment when he found his control the weakest, he looked into Mac’s eyes. The sight of that eerily unfocused gaze staring off into the middle distance as Methos pulled the man’s pants off him, cooled Methos’ ardor better than a cold shower.

There was a time when his standards hadn’t been quite so high, when he wasn’t picky if a sexual partner were conscious or even willing. Remembering what he would have done to so docile and gorgeous a man chilled Methos, for there was a part of him that still wasn’t certain he had the strength to resist the lure of this beloved body.

In his usual state of twisted balls, Methos slid the briefs and socks from Mac’s body, then rose to stare at the naked Highlander. Mac was no less a work of art now than the night he’d first come to Methos’ bed. All the scars of MacLeod’s captivity were healed now. His body was its usual feast of soft-furred skin and well-formed, if thinner, muscle, a sensual delight just to gaze upon, let alone touch…providing one could ignore the vacant gaze above.

This was Hell, Methos realized, to have something so physically perfect in all ways, and so mentally not there.

Sighing, he took hold of Mac’s elbow and guided the Highlander face down onto the blue duvet. Mac didn’t resist…he never did. The younger Immortal settled down on his stomach, turned his head towards the window and just lay there awaiting Methos’ pleasure.

Gazing down at the straight, strong lines of Mac’s back, the perfectly shaped globes of his partner’s buttocks, and the dark mystery of the crease between them, Methos swallowed hard. Mac’s legs were even splayed apart in unconscious invitation. And Methos had never been any good at resisting temptation, not ever.

There was a part of Methos that wondered if Mac would even know if he were being fucked, if someone could mount him and have his way with him while Mac dreamed on with the same oblivion he gave to his baths and toiletry. Nothing penetrated that fugue. Methos doubted that violation would, either.

A good man would not be entertaining these kinds of thoughts, Methos told himself as forbidden desire licked through him. He’d never wanted anything more than he did Duncan MacLeod. To have his friend so malleable was a torture the likes of which Methos had never endured…only…

Mac wasn’t there on that bed. All that was there was the beautiful, empty shell that had housed his spirit. The Duncan MacLeod Methos loved so desperately was off with the fairies someplace. And while his lover was gone, the temple that housed his spirit was inviolate. Methos would cut his own balls off again before he would allow himself to violate the mindless trust this man gave him.

Just because a vulnerability existed, it did not give one the right to exploit it, Methos reminded himself. There were a million reprehensible things a man could do that no one would ever know about. It was the act of choosing not to indulge those baser instincts that separated the civilized man from the savage beast Methos had once been. He knew that in his heart and soul, even if his cock were a little slow on the uptake.

When he was certain he could touch Mac without losing control, Methos picked up the plastic bottle of balsam scented body oil and slicked his hands up.

He started at Mac’s shoulders. Beginning with gentle pressure, he kneaded and rubbed those dense muscles until he’d worked them soft. Only then did he start working his way down Mac’s spine. He dissembled each vertebra in a dance his fingers had been working on bodies since he was a very small child. The muscles here were still not loose enough, but they were nowhere near as cramped as they’d been when Methos had started this therapy in November.

As he got to the small of Mac’s back, where Methos suspected his friend still had the most discomfort, and began to carefully rub there, Mac arched his hips down into the bed, making a small, pleading sound. It was the first vocalization Methos could recall Mac making since his rescue.

The unexpected movement and sound froze Methos. Normally, Mac laid here like a corpse while Methos massaged him. This was the first instance Mac had made anything other than an autonomic response. Hoping that he wasn’t hurting, Methos continued to manipulate that spot right above MacLeod’s coccyx, working the tense area until it seemed more pliant.

He moved lower then, kneading the globes of Mac’s butt until they were warm to the touch. MacLeod’s thighs were a reservoir of tension. Methos worked the piney balsam oil into those tight hamstrings, concentrating on the thick-downed flesh until the muscles below felt malleable as butter. A few minutes at the calves, and Methos’ session of daily torture was finally over.

Methos couldn’t resist the sardonic thought that before this was through, he was going to have more self-discipline than a saint. Of course, most of the saints he’d heard about didn’t have a priapismic erection fighting its way through the front of their pants like he did right now.

Well, a five-thousand year old man should have a pretty good idea how to deal with something like that, Methos reflected. Stars knew, he was certainly getting enough practice at it these days. Resigned to the lonely comfort of his right hand that would follow this session as it had every one before it, Methos paused long enough to roll Duncan over onto his back.

Methos was reaching for the quilt at the foot of the bed that he usually threw over MacLeod to keep his friend warm while he was off dealing with his problem when something completely unexpected stopped him mid-reach.

Mac was sporting an erection that would give his own a run for its money. It had been so long since Methos had seen his lover’s body aroused that for a stunned moment, he could only stare at the flaming red organ, as distracted by its beauty as by its state. For almost three months now, he had been caring for MacLeod. Not once in all that time had Mac’s penis been anything but unremarkably flaccid during these sessions, but this…the flaring cock looked almost painfully engorged.

Hope sharp as MacLeod’s katana blade sliced through Methos. His shocked gaze darted to Mac’s face. Mac was responding! Mac was back! Mac was…

Mac was the vacant eyed zombie Methos had been tending since Samhain, Methos sadly acknowledged, almost unable to bear the disappointment. The only changes in MacLeod were the perspiration droplets beading Duncan’s brow and the tighter set to his features, but his beautiful brown eyes still bore that unfocused glaze, which was especially chilling in a sexual situation. The erection was just a physical response to being touched so intensely. It was no more significant than the hard-on Mac sometimes sported for a few minutes in the morning before he peed.

But that didn’t mean it wasn’t uncomfortable, Methos thought. And, perhaps it wasn’t so insignificant, after all. Normally, Mac didn’t respond to anything. If his body were reacting to being touched, then maybe there was some healing going on here that Methos couldn’t see.

Methos wanted nothing more than to reach out and ease Mac’s need, but every medical ethic he’d ever adhered to screamed against it. He had no more right to go fondling MacLeod’s erection than some orderly in a hospital would. MacLeod was not in a position to give his consent and without it…well, without it he’d be nothing more than a pervert copping a feel. The fact that he wanted to touch Mac more than life itself made his motives completely suspect. He had no objectivity here. Methos knew he should get up and leave, only…this was the first direct response Mac had had to outside stimuli. And, beyond that, Duncan was hurting. As Methos sat there an impotent witness to his lover’s need, the lines of strain in that normally blank face deepened.

A new thought occurred to Methos. If his touch had brought Mac this much closer to the surface, would his ignoring this need drive Duncan further into himself, the way his torturous captivity had?

Undecided, Methos faced down his morals. He knew it was wrong to even think of touching Mac while he was out of it like this, but…as had happened many times in Methos’ centuries of medical practice, there came a point where ethics and compassion came into conflict.

As ever, Methos made the only decision he could live with. He wasn’t Duncan MacLeod. When Methos sat alone on cold winter nights, having done the right thing was of no comfort to him, for he lived in the gray zone where what was morally right wasn’t always the most humane decision. He’d spent so many years inflicting hurt that he found it impossible to resist easing pain where it was within his power. He knew it would never right the wrongs he’d done in his violent adolescence, but anything that reduced suffering had to have meaning and was, therefore, the preferable path, even if it might be seen as morally wrong.

Knowing that he might well be damning himself here, that when MacLeod returned to his senses, he might take umbrage at this liberty – and rightly so – Methos reached out and collected that moist, hard organ into his palm. It sprang to life at his touch as it had done a thousand times before, expanding in size to truly impressive proportions.

The scent of Mac’s musk grew stronger, overshadowing even the fragrant balsam body oil that flavored the air.

Flavor…how Methos had missed Duncan’s distinctive taste. He knew what every inch of this luscious body tasted like, but the part he had missed only slightly less than his lover’s kiss was the tangy flavor of Mac’s arousal. He debated for a heartbeat, and then lowered his head. What mattered it if he got Mac off with a hand job or a blowjob? The results would be the same.

Ten months…it had been ten months since he’d sampled this flesh. Mac’s salty taste burst onto his tongue and mouth, exploding through Methos like a narcotic. His entire body reacted to that sensual flavor, crying for more, longing for everything.

Methos made a play for control and just barely managed to get himself in line. This wasn’t about him. It was about Mac. His loose ethics would allow him to offer his lover this comfort, but they wouldn’t condone Methos doing anything more than what was needed to give MacLeod release. So, as tempting as it was, he did not kiss those lips or lick that throat. He just kept his mouth busy fellating that incredible cock…and, gods knew, that was enough of a gift.

Methos felt like his blood were on fire as he kept his jaw stretched and paid homage to that powerful organ. His own cock about to disintegrate from the strain of resisting temptation, Methos pressed himself into warm space between Mac’s right hip and the mattress and just sucked for all that he was worth, loving that he was finally able to give Mac something he needed, something that MacLeod might be aware of.

Though, to be honest, Mac was far too quiet for this to ever be mistaken for their normal love-play. There were none of the moans, groans and hoarse exclamations that normally filled their bedroom at night. Duncan was accepting Methos’ service as silently as he did everything. But the Highlander’s cock was completely attentive, and right now that was all that mattered to Methos.

He was lost in the wonder of it all when something unexpected totally focused Methos. It had been so long since they had made love that Methos had almost forgotten what that weird energy link that formed between them felt like. So, when it appeared here in this pale imitation of their normal intense unions, it took him completely by surprise. There had been a romantic part of Methos that had almost believed that the link was caused by their souls wanting to touch each other, but since Methos couldn’t say with any certainty that MacLeod even knew he was here, let alone recognized him, that theory didn’t seem to hold water.

At first Methos tried to ignore the power vortex. He had too vivid a recollection of the last time they’d explored the channel, when Mac had…entered Methos’ soul the night after he’d met Longford’s challenge on that bridge and nearly lost dominion of himself to Death. Mac had viewed that joining as a mind-rape afterwards. Though Methos, who had been raped more times in his life than he could possibly either count or remember, hadn’t seen it that way, Mac’s inability to take no for an answer and hold back had frightened him.

That connection bared too much. There was no lying on that level and no hiding, which he supposed was fine for a hero like MacLeod, but for someone like Methos…no matter how much Mac insisted that his past wouldn’t change anything, there was a part of Methos that knew that this champion of justice would despise him once Mac saw his crimes firsthand. So, those three weeks following Longford’s challenge, before Mac’s abduction, Methos had avoided making love with Mac.

That this connection would show up now when MacLeod had all the animation of a

Mr. Potato Head doll was startling. Methos didn’t understand why it should be here. He’d made love with dozens of Immortals throughout his life and only with Myrddid had there been even an echo of this…and it had been nowhere near as intense with his master. But here it was now with the practically brain-dead Duncan MacLeod, just as strong as it had been their last time together. It made no sense…not that much in Methos’ life ever had.

His choices were plain. He could ignore that seething energy matrix and carry on with what he was doing, restricting their contact purely to the physical, or he could overcome his demons and plunge in and find out once and for all just what the hell was going on in Duncan’s mind. Put like that, there really was no choice, Methos wryly acknowledged.

Taking a deep breath around that powerful cock he was still worshipping, Methos closed his eyes and followed the energy currents to waters he’d never explored before. He’d been less frightened when he’d set out in that tiny wooden rowboat with Brother Aiden and the rest of the monks on his trans-Atlantic crossing.

The passage was easier than he expected. One moment Methos was there dithering as he tried to screw up the courage to take the plunge, and the next…the next thing he knew his epidermis and neural network had expanded two-fold and he was getting the blowjob of his life.

Methos gasped at the hot suction around him: so moist, so good, so perfect….

One thing was beyond question - Mac was certainly responding to what they were doing like any healthy male.

Methos made a conscious effort to expand his awareness, to touch something more than mere sensation, to find what Mac was thinking and feeling on an emotional level. This was slightly more difficult than just crossing over, for it required an opening up on his own part as well, but once Methos made the reach….

He was someplace else. Instead of any of their cottage’s cozy bedroom’s furnishings, he found himself staring at a thatched roof. Methos blinked in surprise, then moaned as the mouth working his cock increased its suction. There was a strange, musky scent in the air that brought a barn to mind. But barns didn’t have thatched roofs….

Trying to get his bearings, Methos forced his gaze from the intricate webwork of the thatching and glanced to his right, where two pairs of soulful brown eyes stared back at him out of bovine faces as the cows placidly continued chewing their cud as the humans not ten feet away made passionate love.

What the…? Cows hadn’t been kept indoors during Duncan MacLeod’s life. That practice had stopped a full millennium before, at least.

Confused, Methos turned his gaze to his companion. She was a beauty, there was no getting around that. Her sandy brown curls were wild and long, her peaches and cream cheeks flushed as her full mouth paid homage to that long shaft. She was full breasted and full in another way, Methos realized as he stared down at her unmistakably pregnant stomach. Another week or two, and she’d come to term, the doctor in him noted.

She raised her head from its service and smiled down at him with so much love in her expression that it took Methos’ breath away, “Our son will be just like his father, brave and strong, Owen.”

She was speaking Irish, Methos recognized, and not the kind they spoke in Erin nowadays, but a tongue Methos hadn’t heard in nearly two thousand years.

A warm rush of pride and joy suffused him. It was coming from Mac, Methos realized. Reaching out on a mental level, Methos tried for the first time to see what his lover was thinking.

One word filled MacLeod’s entire universe at that moment. Bree.

“I love you, Bree. He’ll be the finest warrior our world has seen, brave as Cu-Chulainn,” Mac declared in that same defunct Irish dialect. “Ah, Bree…”

It was only as she started to lean down to complete her task that Methos’ eyes focused on a chilling anomaly. Theoretically, since he was in Mac’s mind, presumably viewing whatever Mac was thinking, he should have been looking down at Duncan MacLeod’s body at that point.

But the cock she was absorbing was far thinner and nowhere near as meaty as Methos’ lover’s, and, most shocking of all, the wiry pubic curls at its base were the brightest, most carrot top red Methos had ever seen.

He climaxed as soon as her hot mouth engulfed him…coming in three realities. The redhead receiving the blowjob shot his bolt, as did Duncan and he. The world spun insanely out of control for that eternal moment of orgasm. And then the energy vortex snapped closed, leaving Methos feeling alone and isolated in his own body.

Swallowing the last traces of Mac’s sperm, Methos slowly raised his head, shivering as he stared down at MacLeod’s blank features.

Not blank, he corrected himself, but focused elsewhere. Methos took a deep, Mac scented breath, and tried to make sense of what he’d just seen. If he didn’t know any better, he’d swear that mind he’d touched wasn’t even Mac’s, which of course was blatantly impossible. Who else could it have been, if not MacLeod?

Mac was obviously lost in some fantasy world he’d created during his entombment – a fantasy world where he lived with cows in his cottage, had a wife about to give birth and spoke a dialect of Irish that had been dead for two thousand years. The verity of the vision was astounding, almost too accurate to be mere imagination, but Mac was something of a historian. MacLeod had certainly read about the ages when his people and cattle had lived together. The only thing that Methos couldn’t quite make gel was Mac’s knowledge of that ancient tongue…but then he recalled how close Duncan had been to Sean Byrnes. The dialect in Mac’s fantasy had been Sean’s native language. It was entirely possible that Byrnes had taught it to Mac the same way Darius had taught the Highlander to read ancient runes. Yes, Methos decided, that made sense.

But it was still weird. They’d never really discussed their fantasies, but Methos had always imagined that Duncan’s would be more…heroic than that. But, then, there was a part of every Immortal that longed for the simple life, that ached to have the same limits and recompenses that mortals did – a span of years that was measured in decades, not centuries, the chance to grow old with your mate and watch your family grow and expand, the knowledge that you were part of a time and truly belonged, not just passing through it…yes, Methos could almost understand Mac longing for all those things, but…what was that Owen bit? If this were a simple fantasy, why would Mac go to the trouble of re-naming himself?

Shaking his head, Methos gazed at his lover. Mac’s eyelids had drooped closed and he was sleeping the sleep of the well sated. Methos could feel his own features softening as he took in the aching innocence of those relaxed features.

Well, if nothing else, he’d been able to provide Mac with the release he’d so needed, Methos reflected. Bending down, he brushed a chaste kiss on that smooth brow and reached for the quilt at the bottom of the bed. After covering his naked friend, Methos slipped from the bed.

He stood there watching Mac sleep for a long time, trying to process everything he’d seen in their union. It was only when the disgusting state of his underwear became too much to bear that Methos turned to the dresser to fetch a fresh pair and remove the ones with the cooling come that he was wearing, then made a side trip to the bathroom to wash up.

Once he was dressed again, Methos headed for the kitchen to make himself a cup of tea and further study his puzzle.

*******************

There was a storm raging outside. The lightning flashes were bright as a Quickening, the thunder deafening, the rain pelting down so hard that it would leave bruises on the skin were a man fool enough to venture out into it. The frightening weather was the first thing Methos took note of as he opened his eyes to ascertain his surroundings.

The second thing to come to his attention was that the storm pounding outside had nothing on the one blasting through his body. His heart was thundering louder than the thunderbolts the Kyklopes had made to protect Zeus. His blood was bubbling like magma, his cock a burning rod of iron….

Realizing that that last allusion was probably an anachronism, for everything about the feel of this place was telling him that he was not in the Iron Age, Methos stared around him and tried to place his surroundings. The huge tent that was ominously flapping in the gales could have been Kronos’, but the leader of the Horsemen had never worn polished bronze body armor such as that standing in the corner, nor had he made use of the parchment maps and charts Methos could see rolled on the nearby campaign table. Methos could just make out the writing on the nearest…classical Latin. Staring past the table, Methos saw the eagle on the banner and recognized it as the emblem of Imperial Rome.

He breathed a sigh of relief. Not Kronos’ tent. Though, he should have known by the quality of his arousal that he wasn’t in his former leader’s clutches again. He had never been this relaxed or excited in Kronos’ bed.

Just whose bed Duncan’s fantasy life had propelled them into now was the question. Bracing himself, Methos made the final connection, reaching out to touch Mac’s mind. This had become the hardest part of their daily exchanges, for the mind Methos touched was never the same on any two days. Because he reached his destination at the height of passion, the feelings were generally the same, but the stray thoughts that would filter into the sensual focus never matched.

This afternoon was no different. Yesterday Methos had found himself in an easy-going farm boy. Today….

He gasped in a breath at the rush of possessive lust that flushed through him. There was a hardness, an indulgent selfishness here that he’d never felt in Duncan before. But Methos realized that he wasn’t the least bit unfamiliar with the sensation. He’d felt these same fierce drives millennia ago, when Death had staked his claim on the bodies of those who hadn’t perished on his sword. To the victor belong the spoils….

Unwilling to submerge himself too deeply in that mindset, Methos pulled back mentally. There was nothing of Duncan in that alien personality. If Methos didn’t know better, he’d swear he’d just touched a stranger’s thoughts.

Calming himself, he tried to fit the last pieces of today’s puzzle together. This was one of his favorite parts of this weird experience, working out the who, where and what of each fantasy. He had two of the pieces – a Roman general in his campaign tent. All he needed was Mac’s paramour of the day to complete his puzzle.

Methos turned his gaze from the familiar accoutrements of a general’s campaign tent and sought out the person whose mouth was giving him such incredible pleasure. So far, the sexual act he was engaged in when he arrived was the only consistent factor in the fantasies Methos had been popping into for the past few months. The energy matrix that allowed Methos’ consciousness to cross over into MacLeod’s always seemed to land him in a sexual fantasy where someone was performing fellatio on whatever persona the Highlander was now imagining himself to be – the same act Methos was performing on Duncan back in their cottage. The events would proceed from there, but this was always the jumping off point.

This afternoon’s lover was a blonde with a small head and hair so long and bright it shone like molten gold.

“Enough,” Methos felt himself saying in gruff, colloquial Latin, the lingua of the upper class. This was one of the strangest parts of co-habitating with Duncan’s mind, hearing himself say something or feeling himself do something Methos had no conscious input in determining. His hand reached out to run coarse, calloused fingers through that silky golden cascade.

The bonde’s face lifted up from Methos’ groin…and the blood just about turned to ice in Methos’ veins. Tonight’s fantasy wasn’t Mac’s usual buxomly beauty or the rarer brother-in-arms. Tonight Methos found himself staring at a naked youth. The boy couldn’t be more than ten, if that, he realized, his horrified gaze taking in the childish genitals on the kneeling boy and the gruesome brand on the youth’s left buttock.

Branded like a cow, treated with less care than the livestock, that was the life of a slave in the early days of Imperial Rome. Taking in the boy’s age, Methos realized that this one had probably been servicing men for a good six years already.

He’d lived in this time and been a part of this age once, Methos reminded himself, telling himself that it was no big deal that a full grown man would be having sex with a boy whose secondary sexual attributes hadn’t even developed yet. The strong ruled and the weak served. It was the way of the world. No big deal, except…he’d been in this unfortunate child’s shoes at the same age and, as much as his jaded conscience might refute it, it really was a big deal…for the child.

How often had he worn that same forced smile? This child was no different than he’d been – eager, no, downright frantic to please his master…because the consequences of failing to do so were always worse than the pain of penetration, even at the age of six or eight.

This was why when with the Horsemen, Methos had preferred to give their victims death rather than take them captive. Kronos and Kaspian had been highly amused by his inability to fuck the young ones, but Methos’ reticence went beyond mere squeamishness. His mortal past never lay quiet when he witnessed a man taking a child. Without fail, his dreams would take him back to his first owner’s tent, to the years of sadism and degradation that had birthed his alter ego, Death.

How many millennia had it been since he’d been subjected to this kind of indulgence, Methos wondered, a sick feeling growing in him as his left hand reached out to fondle the boy’s hairless pubes, while his right hand possessively stroked the left buttock that was smooth as a baby’s behind.

And well it should be, Methos wearily recognized that the boy couldn’t have been out of diapers for more than handful of years. But the youngster smiled suggestively up at him and spread his legs so that Methos’ probing fingers could pierce him, the boy’s natural acceptance of these inappropriate touches bespeaking his long experience in the art of pleasing a man. Perhaps this one had less fear of his master than most Methos had seen or treated in his capacity as healer, but Methos, who had been here himself far more times during his childhood than he cared to remember, could see through that smile and read how the boy was bracing himself for what was to follow.

It was all Methos could do to hang onto his breakfast. He tried to tell himself that this child wasn’t him…but he kept remembering what it felt like to have a cock as big as a stallion’s pierce his tiny opening. Pushing his own memories down as far as he could, Methos then tried to feed himself the same lines he usually gave MacLeod to try to defend the unforgivable – different times, different rules. When in Rome, do as the Romans. But…even when he’d been a member of the Senate, where countless compatriots and scholars, whom Methos had greatly respected, had screwed the young boys entrusted to them through the patronage system or taken some misbegotten slave child to his bed as a matter of course, Methos had never done so. He’d been an anomaly in a society where a young boy with a sweet ass could rise in the Emperor’s court faster than a landed senator, where sex with children was an accepted social convention. There were times when he’d greatly insulted his hosts at some of the more grandiose banquets where everyone at the party was gifted with a virgin child, because Methos hadn’t indulged…couldn’t indulge, then or now…

His restraint wasn’t born out of anything as high flung as morals, but because he simply couldn’t hold the contents of his stomach with those ancient memories tearing through him, as all those stony cocks had ripped his young flesh.

But here was Duncan MacLeod, the most moral man he’d ever met, fantasizing about sodomizing a child too young to get an erection. This could simply not be happening, not with Mac.

Methos knew this man, inside and out. While it was true that every man had his dark side and one could never predict what sexual kinks even the most virtuous man might be hiding, Methos simply could not accept that his Duncan would get off on the rape of a child – for rape it would always be where one of the participants was a slave and the word no wasn’t in his vocabulary.

Too disgusted to remain, Methos pulled himself out before things could progress any further. He fought his way out of Mac’s skin and mind, fleeing across their energy conduit like a wanted felon. Sobbing and sick to his stomach, he quickly brought the cock in his mouth to a climax, feeling as used as he had in his first owner’s pleasure tent. He was almost unable to drink down MacLeod’s seed, so upset was he by this afternoon’s sideshow.

Raising his head, he felt the hot gush at the back of his throat that presaged disaster. Scrambling from the bed with a hand pressed tight to his mouth, Methos stumbled to the plastic trashcan in the corner, where he promptly disgorged the contents of his stomach.

Still a wimp, after all those millennia, he thought tiredly, wishing to God he’d never seen this side of Mac. It was a few minutes before he could even move. All he wanted to do was flee then, but…he had responsibilities. He couldn’t blame MacLeod if he didn’t like what he found when he entered the man’s mind uninvited.

But…had he entered Mac’s mind, Methos found himself wondering. He might never have tasted his lover’s thoughts before, but Mac had been inside his mind. Methos had gotten a feel for how MacLeod felt inside. The goodness of the man, the over-riding compassion…these were the earmarks of his friend. There hadn’t been the faintest traces of those inside that hard general.

And the fantasy itself…there was nothing in it that spoke of Duncan. Mac hadn’t been raised in an age where sex with children was acceptable. He’d been reared in a strict Christian society, where any sex outside the marriage bed was viewed as criminal. While in many cases that strictness might breed perversion, it had bred only idealism and kindness in Mac.

Even the feel of the fantasy had been wrong. When men daydreamed of the forbidden, there was a degree of unnatural excitement to their appreciation of it. They had a tendency to dwell on whatever facet of their salacious kink made it the most forbidden – someone engaging in a rape fantasy would focus on the violence, someone thinking of incest would fix on the family relationship, a pedophile on his partner’s youth….In five-hundred centuries, Methos had seen or done it all.

Yet…this afternoon’s scenario had contained none of the rush peculiar to illicit kinks. There had been a matter-of-factness to the general’s use of that boy that no man born in a Christian age could fake. The Roman hadn’t been behaving as if he were doing anything wrong, because in his time and mind, he wasn’t. He was simply claiming his possession, with the same lustful glee Methos used to experience when he took his own captives. Though not a day went by now when Methos didn’t regret his former excesses, there had been no sense of wrong for Death at that time, either, just the exhilaration of claiming what he’d won.

His honorable lover had never played those kinds of games, never taken partners by force or pressed captives into sexual service. Methos knew this for a fact, and if his own conviction in Mac’s character weren’t enough, he had four-hundred years of Watchers’ Reports to corroborate his confidence.

So what was going on here? How could Mac envision something so alien to his character and life-experiences, and treat it as though it were the norm?

There was only one answer to that – he couldn’t. Methos would stake his life on the belief that Duncan MacLeod would never willingly take, or even fantasize about taking, a child to his bed. Whatever and whoever that general had been, he wasn’t Duncan MacLeod. Which, of course, inevitably led to the question of who it had been, there inside of Mac’s mind.

“What the hell is going on with you, Mac?” Methos questioned as he covered the drowsing Highlander with the quilt, still shuddering at the realism of the scene he’d just witnessed.

Something more than just the perversion of the scene was troubling him. After a moment of staring down into Mac’s face, Methos tracked down the cause of his uneasiness. That brand on the child’s bottom had been hauntingly familiar, he realized. After another minute’s thought, he remembered. That had been the Martucci’s brand. Methos had been a guest at the family’s villa many a time.

The Martucci’s slave brand wasn’t something that would have ever made it into a history book, Methos recognized, a cold shiver quaking through him. How could Mac have possibly invented that?

Every one of Mac’s fantasies was like that, so vivid and detailed that Methos felt like he’d stepped back into the past. Everything was there, from the stinking chamber pots to the lice and body odor of unwashed flesh. Why anyone would put that degree of reality into a wet dream, Methos couldn’t say. He knew how people these days viewed the past. Everything was filtered through rose-colored glasses and viewed like one of those damn Ren-Faire festivals that were so popular these days, where the deluded played out a courtly way of life that Methos had never encountered in that age of tyranny and superstition. While it was true that MacLeod knew better than to see the past that way, Methos couldn’t comprehend why his friend would bother to incorporate all these unpleasant details into his sexual fantasies. If Methos didn’t know better, he’d swear that what he was witnessing were memories being reenacted as opposed to fantasies, but that didn’t make sense, because like this last disturbing peepshow, every one of the events Mac was living out in his mind had happened centuries, even millennia before the Highlander was born.

Methos looked down at Mac’s face, searching for he knew not what, perhaps some clue as to what he’d stepped into this afternoon, but Mac slept on in sated oblivion. The innocence of those slumbering features was as achingly touching as ever. There was no hint that the man had just gotten off on a seedy wet dream of sex with a child.

If Methos hadn’t seen it himself, he would never have believed it.

Too disturbed to think about it anymore, Methos pulled himself from the bed, grabbed the reeking trash can to wash out, and headed for the kitchen. For once, he didn’t have to change his boxers before leaving. Today’s trip into Duncan’s fantasy life had left him feeling dirty, not sticky with spent semen as was the norm. As he sent one last troubled gaze to the slumbering man on the bed, Methos wondered if Mac had been this repulsed by the things he’d seen in Methos’ mind that night after he’d faced Longford and, if he had, how Mac had ever gotten up the nerve to return to his bed.

*******************

Methos was almost afraid of what he’d find the following day when the massage he gave Duncan once again turned into a fellatio session, but to his great relief, there were no surprises. Mac’s lover of that afternoon was a slender black woman, while MacLeod’s imagination had clothed himself in the flesh of a flabby, gentle, middle-aged mid-eastern man. Giving a mental shake of his head at the whimsies of human sexuality, Methos rode out the sex scene and those of the weeks that followed. At no time did he ever feel like he was touching Mac’s mind. In most cases, there was an undercurrent of similar personality traits, but not once in all those encounters did any of the minds Methos sampled have Duncan’s distinctive feel.

Still, in a strange way, Methos grew to look forward to those daily jaunts into Mac’s fantasylands, if fantasylands they were. More and more, Methos was beginning to doubt that Mac was creating these scenes. From the start, the cynic in him kept trying to find flaws to debunk Mac’s creations, but there weren’t any to be found. Nothing was off, ever, not the clothing, the language, or the level of technology. There wasn’t a single anachronism. The bodies peopling Mac’s visions were often not perfect, but they were always flawless examples of their age. It was a stunning, disturbing recreation of times that Mac had never seen.

Methos asked himself at least a dozen times a day why he continued to immerse himself in this bewildering montage of changing visions. A lot of his motivation had to do with working out what was going on with Mac, but just as much of what motivated him had to do with the scenarios themselves. It was like watching a porn flick that had direct feed to your nervous system. Methos never knew who or where they’d be, but it was never boring.

A good two and a half months after that unsettling view of the Roman general and his slave boy, Methos received another shock that made that one seem mild.

When Methos opened his eyes in the fantasy this time, he was in a narrow cot. There was barely room for him and his companion, who was a long-limbed, dark haired man from what he could tell of the person crouched over Mac’s groin in the fantasy. His companion’s dark braid kept slapping Mac’s slender white belly as the man sucked at his cock. This time Mac’s pubic hair was golden blond. He could see it every time his partner raised up the cock a bit, but the man was deep-throating him and never lifted his head far enough up for Methos to get a clear look at his face in those first moments after arrival.

Trying to get some feel of the time period Mac had propelled them into this time, Methos searched the room. The stonewalled chamber was small, but comfortable. The big, gray granite blocks of stone that made up the wall made him think they were in a castle or keep of some kind. The room was clean and didn’t smell bad. The only odors in the air were the scent of sex and the whiff of smoke from the candelabra on the nightstand where one by one, the burnt down candles were extinguishing. There was a table nearby with a pile of books on it, huge old tomes with parchment pages that were written by hand. Amused, Methos realized that they could easily have been his own. In fact, the entire room had a ring of familiarity to it that was instantly comforting.

Now came the scary part. Taking a deep mental breath, Methos reached out to sample the mind of the man whose body they were inhabiting. He was used to the first blast of raw, unadulterated sex that shot through him. But tonight, it was more than that. Relieved, Methos encountered a gentleness of spirit, a…love that was familiar and had nearly an identical feel to Dunacn MacLeod’s. It was the closest to Mac he’d gotten yet, Methos thought as he sampled the degree of devotion this afternoon’s lover bore his companion. Hoping that he might at last have found some key to MacLeod’s mental whereabouts, Methos submerged himself deeper into today’s flavor of the day.

Mon amant,” Duncan gave a hoarse whisper, speaking in medieval French.

The man working his cock with such incredible skill reluctantly raised his face from his prize…and Methos found himself gazing into his own pink-cheeked reflection. He wondered if his mental grin were influencing Duncan’s expression in the fantasy or whatever this was. He’d been waiting for this to happen, for his own image to show up in these daily wet dreams. That it had taken almost four months for Mac to get around to reeling him into this sensual parade had begun to dent his ego, especially since he’d had to wait in line behind lice ridden and unwashed partners. Yet, even as his amusement ran high as he stared at himself, something began to bother Methos.

At first he couldn’t place what it was, but then he realized that it was his appearance – or rather, the fact that there was nothing out of place in it. MacLeod had only known him with short hair. While it was possible that Mac’s imagination might have supplied the fuel to create this image or Methos’ current shoulder-length ponytail might have filtered through MacLeod’s mental fugue to feed it, the accuracy of the representation was uncanny. Long hair had been the style back then, Mac would probably have known that from history. Like most men, Methos had worn his hair halfway down his back. But how could Mac have possibly known that at night Methos would plait it in a single loose braid just as Duncan’s fantasy lover was wearing now?

Another chilling piece of verisimilitude was the fact that contrary to the popular style for adult males, Methos had hardly ever worn a beard back then. He was as clean-shaven here as he’d been in most ages.

And, perhaps most troubling of all was the fact that Mac had clothed him in exactly the type of garment he’d generally worn to bed whenever he lived in drafty castles. The laces on the front of his flowing, over-sized white shirt were undone, leaving his naked front exposed. Methos’ breath caught in his chest as he glimpsed his feet, where a pair of the ridiculous woolen booties he’d worn for countless centuries were peeking out from under the bedclothes. While it was possible MacLeod’s romantic imagination might have garbed Methos in the rather striking shirt, nobody would include grandma Jones booties in a wet dream.

“Yes, mon coeur?” Methos heard himself reply.

The present day Methos froze up inside at that endearment. Duncan and he never used pet names for each other. How could Mac have possibly known that My heart was a term he’d employed…in a time period when he’d worn his hair long and braided, in a room that looked frighteningly like this one, with a male lover that he would eventually lose his testicles over? For, though Methos had yet to get a clear view of the body he and Mac were currently inhabiting, he knew this place, knew this room.

But how could Mac possibly know?

While it was true enough that MacLeod had touched his mind the last time they’d made love together, this period of his life had been the furthest thing from Methos’ thoughts. He’d been trapped in his memories of the Horsemen that night, Mac couldn’t have possibly gotten this much detail from him. It must be sheer coincidence. But those booties…and that pet name….

Still, though hardly attractive, woolen bed socks were common in that period. As for the love name…Perhaps Mac had had a French lover who’d called him that. Yes, that made sense. He was just reading significance where none existed.

And so Methos told himself, until the body he was in reached for the dream Methos and he caught sight of the livid red scar on his own right hand. He knew that jagged burn. His tongue had traced it a thousand times. His beautiful Michél, whose beauty no one but he had ever appreciated.

That scarred hand stroked the dream Methos’ cheek and Methos heard himself and Mac ask, “Promise that you will never leave me, mon amant?”

Never is a long time, Methos had said all those centuries ago.

“Never is a long time,” the doppelganger Methos smiled, brushing a kiss on the nearby fingers. Methos shivered. It was such a bizarre sensation to feel himself kissing himself with such passion.

“I’ve never loved anyone the way I do you,” Mac and he swore, lying back on the bed and drawing the older man on top of them, feeling their hard erections nestle together with long familiarity. This sharing a body was confusing, Methos thought, especially when the person they were addressing was his former self.

What was even more unsettling was that he could sense Michél’s thoughts and feelings now. It wasn’t just love the young blond bore him; it was the same kind of insane devotion he felt for Mac, the kind that filled your whole world and didn’t leave room for anything else.

“You’ve never loved anyone but me,” that Methos of long ago corrected, just as the present day Methos remembered doing. This was one conversation he’d had cause to remember for centuries.

Back then he’d worried that his lover would take the words as an arrogant boast, but from his weird, reversed perspective, Methos could see nothing but adoration in his own greenish-hazel eyes gazing down upon Michél.

Gods, how he’d loved this one. Looking at how the love he felt for this man shone off his face, transforming his often-ascetic features into something too tender for words, Methos abruptly understood how Michél’s father had found out about them. And how Joe, Amanda and Grace had known about him and Mac. Apparently, he wore his heart on his sleeve.

“That’s the way I want to keep it, Adam. No one but you, forever,” Methos felt Mac and his lips vow. Methos shook inside at the prophetic statement, even as he read the uneasiness that passed through his mirror self’s eyes above him. Listen to that warning, Methos silently urged. Get up from this bed, get on your horse and put a thousand miles between you. Leave. Let him live, let him marry and have babies…let there be one less death on your conscience.

But he hadn’t listened to his better sense then, nor did he now. Methos tried to hide away as he heard his own voice uneasily replying, “You will be lord of this land someday. You will marry and have many heirs.”

“I will never marry. There will be only you, forever,” the man whose body Mac had appropriated for his fantasy this time swore. If there had been a prophet in their bed that night, it certainly wasn’t Methos.

“You are plighted to your second cousin and you will marry her this spring,” the mirror Methos firmly reminded.

Michél, and therefore Duncan and himself, met Methos’ gaze and denied with solid steel, “I’ll not marry her. She…she cringes every time she looks upon my face. How could they force her to come to my bed?”

Michél held Methos’ pained hazel gaze as the Immortal reached out to run his finger over the tight scar tissue that was the entire left side of Michél’s face. He shivered in reaction to that soft touch along the part of his face that everybody did their best not to gawk at.

Michél had had a difficult cross to bear. The left side of his face had been horribly deformed by fire, while right side was that of an angel. Mathos remembered how jarring it had been in the first few weeks he’d been acting as an accountant here at the keep to see the difference between the handsome, milky skin on the right side of Michél’s face and the livid pink field of burns that made up his left side, but these days, Methos barely noticed the disfigurement. All he ever saw were those blue eyes, so deep and true, and the shy smile that warmed his heart.

But he knew that he was the exception, rather than the rule. Even Michél’s father, Lord Champlain, had trouble looking upon his son’s visage for long. In all his years of living, Methos had rarely met an individual who handled adversity as well as Michél did. Though Methos was certain his perceptive friend noticed how his family and friends reacted to his scars, Michél’s smile rarely faltered, his good will seemingly inexhaustible. It was that courage that had endeared him to Methos, and the fire of the young man’s personality that had brought him to his bed.

Responding to Michél’s insistence that he would never marry, Methos said, “Marie will come to your bed out of respect and duty, for the same reasons you will go to hers. She will come to love you, mon coeur. How could she not? You just need to be patient with her.”

“I don’t want to be patient with her. I don’t want to have anything to do with her,” the triumvirate that was Michél, MacLeod and Methos insisted.

“Listen to me,” the older man snapped at them, “you will stop this childishness immediately. This cannot be changed. You will not bring dishonor to your family. You will marry Marie and-”

“And what of us?” Michél cried, a dark well of despair opening up inside him at the very thought of being alone and ostracized because of his scars again. Inside his lover now, Methos got a firsthand view of how much his friendship meant to the young mortal, and how Michél truly thought he would never be loved again.

It was almost as if the Methos of that time had read that very thought, Methos realized, as he watched his own features gentle. He’d never seen himself from the outside like this before and…perhaps for the first time since he’d left Death behind, Methos found that he truly liked himself. This had been a love that he knew from day one had no chance of working out, but Michél had borne his emotional isolation with such dignity and courage that Methos had been unable to turn away from Michél when the young lord stumblingly seduced him, even though Methos had known that discovery could be worth both their lives.

So now, when he should have been cutting ties and helping his lover detach to start a new life, Methos had been just as ensnared as his beloved. He could hear the resignation in his own voice as he responded, “What of us? We steal our love between vespers and martens now. How will that change? My room is here; you know the way to it.”

“You…you will not leave me, then?” Michél calmed, the panic leaving his, and therefore Mac’s and Methos’, heart.

Leave him? Methos had known it was as good as both their lives for him to remain and still he hadn’t been able to go. He saw himself swallow hard and give the answer that had doomed them both all those years ago, “If I could have left you, I would have done it the night you came to my bed. I do you no favor by staying, Michél. If we are discovered….”

“I don’t care,” Michél whispered.

“You will care when they find us. A pair of young men were boiled in lead in Riems last year….”

Michél’s scarred hand reached out to smother Methos’ words. “You are my life and I would die for you.”

“I don’t want you to die for me, Michél. I want you to live and grow stronger.”

“I could not survive without you, not now,” Michél protested. “Even in heaven. If you weren’t there…I wouldn’t want to stay, either.”

“My kind doesn’t end up in heaven,” the mirror Methos said. Looking up at himself, Methos at last understood what Mac meant when he said that he knew Methos’ pain. In all the times he’d looked in the mirror attempting to see what Duncan, Grace and others referred to, he’d seemed his usual sardonic self, even when greatly upset. But gazing up at the worried man on top of him, Methos saw the endless loss of endless years etched into his own face. He could almost read the tragedies that had formed those lines playing out behind his changeable eyes.

“They say that the Lord is forgiving,” Michél argued. “I know that his priests sometimes are not, but…I think He could forgive us our love. And if He can’t…I’d wait in Hell a thousand years or a thousand lifetimes just to touch you again.”

“Michél…”

“Promise me if you get to heaven first, you’ll wait for me?” Michél pleaded.

It was a harmless boon to give this man whose sweet love had made him feel like he belonged for the first time since Myrddid’s death. Methos recalled how easily he’d made that bargain, knowing that, should he die, he would be absorbed into some other Immortal’s lifeforce and never have to worry about keeping it. “I’ll wait for you. I swear it.”

“And I for you. I will not lose you, not for Marie, not even for life itself.”

It was here that he should have gotten out of the bed and left, Methos acknowledged. Normally, such vows were sweet-nothings, passion born of the moment, but this lonely idealist meant the words. Methos knew without doubt that if he asked this princling to leave his palace in the dark of night, Michél would have been right there behind him, trudging through the frozen countryside as they futilely searched for a safe harbor for a love such as theirs.

If he’d cared about his lover’s future, he would have left then, Methos recognized. But he’d needed Michél as much as his friend had needed him.

So, the scene played out exactly as it had eight centuries ago. Methos’ need for this fiery, beautiful innocent had overcome both his common sense and survival instincts. He’d allowed himself to be pulled down onto the cot, where within moments he was totally lost in the delights of Michél’s ever willing flesh.

Methos felt Michél’s legs part and wrap around his mirror self’s thin waist. Both Mac and he went hard as a rock as the mirror Methos’ fingers slipped inside him to prepare Michél with a slippery ointment. And then the other Methos was sliding his huge cock up that narrow passageway, and Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod was shouting his delight with Michél’s voice as he was taken while Methos did his very best not to break down and sob...because he knew how this would end.

He’d had his cock buried in Michél just like this three days later when Lord Champlain’s priest and guards had burst in upon them and caught them in flagrante delicto. The guards hadn’t meant to hurt their lord’s only son. It was the degenerate who had led Michél astray that was their target. But Michél hadn’t lied when he’d said he’d die for Methos.

Michél’s semen had still been a silvery, wet slick on his pectoral muscles when he’d flung himself between Methos and the captain of his father’s guard’s spear as it went for the Immortal’s chest. To this day, Methos could still see that iron pike piercing that sex-flecked skin, still see Michél’s shocked expression as the light died in those brilliant blue eyes.

When the guards had pushed him to the floor in front of his lover’s cooling corpse and held Methos down while their captain used his knife to take Methos’ balls as a trophy for the loving father and then cauterized the wound with a torch so that the pervert would live to see a death worthy of his crime, he’d barely been aware of the mutilation. All he could see was the stunned look frozen on Michél’s dead face.

It was all Methos could think about now, which was probably just as well. There was something unnervingly narcissistic about being taken by one’s self.

He supposed he could have fought his way clear and returned to the twentieth century while Mac finished his sojourn into the eighth alone, but Methos just didn’t have the strength for it. One of his deepest wounds had been reopened here today. While Mac was humping his way to sweaty completion, Methos just lay there and bled.

Finally, Mac finished and the vortex snapped them back into their respective bodies.

His cheeks wet with tears, Methos swallowed the semen in his mouth, lifted his head from his lover’s lax genitals and stared down into Mac’s sleepy-lidded, contented gaze.

Christ, all mighty, Methos shivered, what the hell was going on here?

That wasn’t a fantasy. Everything had played out exactly as it had eleven-hundred years ago. There was no way Mac could have remembered that conversation with Michél from just touching his mind last January, and even if Mac had somehow seen his love for Michél, how could he have known the details of Methos’ chamber, down to the books he’d had open on the table while Michél and he were making love?

There was only one answer to that. The only way Mac could have had that level of recall was if he’d actually been there and the only way he could have been there was if he were one of the two people in that room.

Like Mac had been one of the people in all the ancient rooms and structures that they’d visited these past few months, all of which the four-hundred year old Highlander couldn’t possibly have personally experienced, yet obviously had. Abruptly, all those other scenarios that Methos had dismissed as an overactive imagination began to make sense. Mac hadn’t been making that stuff up…he’d been revisiting all the places he’d lived and loved before he’d become Duncan MacLeod. It was almost as though all those times Duncan had died in the trunk of that car had trapped his spirit on this crazy roulette wheel where MacLeod was trying to find a safe place to step off the spinning wheel of unending death to live for a while.

The scientist in Methos balked at the idea. But his spiritual activities of the past year had strained his rational side to the point where he would accept almost anything – magic harps, changelings, reincarnation…what was the difference?

And…it wasn’t as preposterous a notion as he’d like to believe. Myrddid had spoken of this a time or two. Methos had been too skeptical to accord the idea the attention it deserved, and once again he was paying for his pig-headedness.

It was said that Myrddid lived his life backwards. Methos had never understood the rumor, until now.

How often had he seen his master sitting with his harp in hands, staring off into the hearth fire with much the same blank expression Mac wore nowadays? Myrddid would always resurface with some pithy piece of ancient wisdom or magic from forgotten ages that were sometimes even older than Methos. Methos had always thought his master psychic, believing that Myrddid scried the past as he would the future in his silver bowl, but now Methos knew the truth. His master had lived backwards, just like the legends said. Like MacLeod, Myrddid had had the ability to tune into his past lives. His teacher had admitted as much to him once, only…Methos had tuned the subject out as being too fantastical…like everything else Myrddid had taught him wasn’t!

Still shaking, Methos wiped the tears from his cheeks and then turned to Mac, who might very well have been Michél as well. His poor Michél, who’d loved him more than life, and apparently beyond death as well.

Too much in the past, Methos bent down to place a soft kiss on his lover’s brow and gently covered the sleeping man. He spent a long moment staring down into Mac’s face, searching for answers. Finally, Methos rose slowly to his feet, straightened out his wrinkled clothing…and fled to the living room to think this through logically.

***********************

“I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviors to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love…” Methos looked up from the heavy book in his hands to smile over at his own folly, Duncan, who was sitting on the couch beside him, watching the flames in the cottage’s hearth dance with the same faraway expression he’d worn for over four months now. Not faraway, Methos corrected himself, far-a-when. Mac was still shuffling through what Methos could only consider his past lives. Trying not to think about that conundrum, Methos brightened his smile and said, “I think our friend Benedick is heading for a fall here. What do you think, Mac?”

Methos knew his lover was an avid Shakespeare fan, so he was reading the familiar words to MacLeod, hoping that Mac’s love of these plays would call him back. So far, Methos had had as little success with this as anything else he’d tried, but at least he was enjoying the Bard’s use of language. Much Ado About Nothing had always been one of his favorites.

It sure beat the opera CDs he was playing every morning on the boom box Joe had brought up on his last visit. If he had to listen to one more caterwauling aria, Methos feared he’d do himself an injury.

Taking a deep breath, he read on, “…and such a man is Claudio. I have known when there was no music with him but the drum and the fife; and now had he rather hear the tabour and the pipe: I have known when he would have walked ten mile a-foot to see a good armour; and now will he lie ten nights awake, carving the fashion of a new doublet. He was wont to speak plain and to the purpose, like an honest man and a soldier; and now is he turned orthography; his words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange--”

He broke off, freezing at the unexpected, and therefore ominous, buzz of an Immortal signature hit him. His eyes strayed to Duncan, curious to see if his oblivious friend would react to the possible threat, but Mac stared on at the fire, as unimpressed by that possible death knell as he was by Methos’ voice cutting off so suddenly.

His sword never far from hand, Methos was armed in a heartbeat. His first impulse was to bring Mac down to the hot springs and hide him there for safety’s sake, but this was all holy ground, within and without.

A pair of headlights flashed through the living room windows.

“I’ll deal with this,” Methos said softly to his ever-silent companion. Even though Mac probably couldn’t hear a thing he was saying, Methos went on to assure, “This is holy ground. They can’t hurt you here…and I won’t let them past me. But I think it would be best if you were not so visible from the door. Come with me. You can wait in our bedroom.”

Guiding the Highlander to his feet, Methos quickly led his lover into the nearby bedroom, sat him on the bed and smiled down at him with as much confidence as he could muster. Another Immortal arriving uninvited in the dead of night was never a good omen.

“Be back in a minute,” Methos promised, praying he would. He hadn’t lifted a sword since last January. He was as out of practice as MacLeod.

Bending down, he planted a quick kiss on the crown of Mac’s head, and then made a fast side trip to get his revolver and knife from the dresser. Closing the bedroom door firmly behind him, Methos went to meet the inevitable challenge.

He had just paused behind the front door when the knock came.

The door was too old to have a peephole, not that it would really matter what Immortal was on the other side of it right now. Whoever it was, was uninvited. It wasn’t Grace or Amanda, the only two Immortals to whom Methos had divulged their location. He knew both their signatures well enough to recognize them straight off, and, yet, there was something familiar about the presence of the person on the other side of the door. Wondering if it might be one of the Valicourts, Methos cautiously inched the door open…and froze as his eyes met the feline green gaze of the Immortal on the other side of the threshold.

Would that all his nightmares had such a beautiful visage.

Three-thousand years…and she was still one of the loveliest women he’d laid eyes upon, the kind who could have launched those thousand ships, but hadn’t. She stood there in the cool April night, in a long gown of silver-trimmed, green velvet that hugged every one of her curves. Her long brown hair was loose and windblown. A silver pendent in the symbol of the triple goddess’ three interlocked horns rested against the peaches and cream skin that the scooped neck of her gown revealed. The power of the ancient Immortal throbbed through the night, the way the solstice’s energy had the night he’d brought MacLeod halfway back from the dead.

“Cassandra….” His tension increasing exponentially, Methos’ gaze jumped to her right hand. No sword, no gun, no knife, she was weaponless, save for the accusation in her cat eyes, and that was virulent enough to have killed a man. The absolute scorn she held him in was an almost physical assault.

He’d been working too close to the Mystery of late. He was too open these days, too vulnerable; her contempt pelted him far more effectively than her fists ever had.

Methos didn’t know what to say or why she was here – save for the obvious reason. So he quickly warned, as though one such as she could ever mistake the power throbbing underfoot, “This is holy ground. You can’t take my head here.”

The snort she gave snapped over him sharp as a whiplash. “If I wanted your head right now, you’d be dead. Where is Duncan?”

“Come to gloat over your handiwork – have you?” Methos challenged as he stared at the woman whose loose tongue had set the events in motion which had led to MacLeod being locked in that trunk for nearly a year.

“Where is he?”

“How did you find me?” Methos asked, ignoring her question.

“How do you think?” Cassandra coldly countered.

She could have studied with Myrddid, Methos thought. A master of the unspoken, she knew how to sow the seeds of doubt, without ever openly voicing the suggestion. She knew where his thoughts would lead – to the only person other than MacLeod that they both knew.

“Joe Dawson would die before he’d say a word to you,” Methos insisted, before his mind lept to the next conclusion. A couple of years ago, he never would have voiced his next thought, but he’d been through too much since Duncan had been abducted, and Methos just wasn’t himself anymore. So, he heard himself making the next, impotent threat, “If you’ve harmed him-”

“I harm him?” she laughed without humor. “He threatened to take my head if I didn’t get the hell off his property.”

That was his Joe. Methos could hear his old friend’s voice echoing in her words. He was rather surprised that she’d kept her head. After this last year, Methos knew Joe Dawson wouldn’t have been joking. He’d have done it to protect them.

“Fortunately, one of us was there. She had an amazing calming effect on Mac’s friend.”

Grace, Methos realized. He’d seen those effects himself two weeks ago when they’d last visited.

Deciding that she hadn’t done anything to hurt Joe, Methos reminded, “You still haven’t answered my question. How did you find me?”

“If you must know, I scried you in a crystal,” she replied, her tight expression seeming to expect ridicule.

“Then why did you go to Joe at all?” Methos picked at the answer. He didn’t think she was lying, but…there was no reason for her to visit Dawson if she’d located them as claimed.

“Because ever since Samhain, every time I looked for Duncan I saw…images of the past…the ancient past,” Cassandra seemed genuinely worried here. “Finally, I stopped searching for Duncan. I remembered that Joe Dawson was his observer--”

“Watcher,” Methos corrected.

“His Watcher. That brought me to Paris.”

“And then?” Methos prodded.

“And when Joe wouldn’t tell me where Duncan was or what had happened to him, I took a chance and searched for you,” she finished. “Is MacLeod here?”

“Why are you looking for him?” he asked, not budging from the half-open doorway.

“I…before last October, I was having…horrible nightmares about him,” Cassandra reluctantly admitted. “He was trapped somewhere, screaming and dying, over and over. I saw him every night…until the screams stopped.”

Methos shivered, recalling how that frightening silence had been worse than the torture of hearing Mac suffer and being unable to help him.

“Why should it matter to you?” Methos asked. “You hardly parted as friends.”

Cassandra had left the Bordeaux hotel room that she’d shared with Mac before the Highlander had even gotten back into town the morning after Apocalypse. On the one occasion Methos had had the nerve to inquire about her after his and Mac’s reunion following the Keane affair, Mac had told him how she’d refused all contact with him.

“I’ve known Duncan MacLeod since he was a child. We were lovers. No matter how we parted, I could never wish that kind of pain on him.”

“Oh? Then why did you direct Alexander Longford his way?”

To her credit, she held his gaze. “He was hunting you, not Duncan.”

“Ah,” Methos said, as if that made all the difference, and, perhaps it did. She’d had no way of knowing what was between him and MacLeod. After lying to Mac and running off with Kronos, Cassandra or anyone who knew MacLeod would have had a hard time believing that the Highlander would forgive him, for all that Mac had kept her from taking his head that fateful night.

“I never thought the Macedonian would hurt Duncan,” she insisted.

“You obviously didn’t know him very well in that case,” Methos snapped at her, not in a terribly forgiving mood.

Her cheeks colored with emotion, but it could have been anger as easily as shame. Methos could see how difficult it was for her to hold a civil conversation with him. “Obviously,” was all she said, and then demanded after a long pause in which they simply glared at each other, “Are you going to tell me where Duncan is?”

From the way her gaze kept trying to peer into the room beyond him, it was fairly clear she knew.

“Why should I?” he asked, staying calm, even though she was the reason Longford had known to find him through MacLeod.

“Because you owe it to me,” she answered, cold as a steel blade against bare skin. “And because if you don’t, you will face me off holy ground.”

“I wondered when it would come to that,” he said wearily. “Mac…hasn’t been himself lately. I’ve been taking care of him for the last six months. If you take my head, that responsibility will fall on your shoulders. Unless you want his head as well?” he checked.

“I’ve never wanted Duncan’s head. I couldn’t! Ever!” Cassandra insisted. Though, Methos noticed she made no claims about not wanting his.

Methos believed her as far as Mac was concerned, but still…it wasn’t his nature to accept things on faith. He still had to probe until his conscious mind were convinced.

“If you were so concerned about MacLeod, why has it taken you over a year to look for him?” Methos challenged, wishing to God that she’d found Mac when she started looking, even though it would have taken his friend out of his life for a time. At least Mac’s suffering would have been reduced…and he mightn’t have been so mentally damaged by his ordeal.

“I’ve been searching for him for a year and two months,” Cassandra said, sounding defeated. When Methos made no comment, she explained as though speaking to someone who knew nothing of such things, “The work I do, it requires a certain…mental balance, a calmness that I was unable to obtain…because I was still too angry at him for letting you live.”

“And now? How can I be certain you’re not here to finish what Longford started and take both our heads?” Methos didn’t believe for a moment that Mac was in any true danger from her, but as for himself…what he’d done to her three-thousand years ago was enough to make even the sanest person lose it enough to take a head on holy ground.

“My sword is in my car. It will stay there,” Cassandra said slowly, angrily, in that lovely, deep, vaguely British voice that was a charm in itself, in all senses of that word. “I just…I need to know what happened to Duncan.”

“You want to know what happened to him?” Methos couldn’t keep his resentment from flavoring his response. “Your friend Longford hired some goons to shoot down Mac and his student Ritchie outside his home. They took Ritchie’s head, which forced Mac to take one of his closest friend’s Quickenings. When the lightshow stopped, his mortal attackers stuffed Mac in their trunk, drove him to an abandoned warehouse outside of Arronville and left him there. For eight months – in the trunk of a car, with no food or water. That’s what happened to him.”

The pain in her face as her eyes squeezed shut made him regret his cruelty. He knew fully well that he was the last person on this planet who had the right to go throwing stones. What had she ever done that could ever equal Death’s transgressions? The most he could accuse her of was wanting revenge upon himself, and, who could blame her? Certainly, not he, who knew exactly how badly he’d abused her.

“I’m sorry,” Methos offered when her eyes didn’t immediately reopen, “that was uncalled for. Duncan is inside. Come on in. It’s getting cold out here.”

That got her attention. Cassandra’s eyes snapped open and she stared at him as though she didn’t know who he was. As she stepped closer, her gaze slipped down to the sword he still held in his hand.

His nerves stretched to the breaking point, he slowly pointed his blade towards the ground. Stepping back, he propped his weapon against the wall inside the door and motioned her inside.

He couldn’t imagine how much courage it took for her to enter this place alone with him, unarmed, with all their ancient history heavy between them. She knew fully well what he’d been. Death would have had no problem with knocking her out, carrying her off holy ground and then raping her until she was too sore to walk. Just the thought of some of the things he used to do made his stomach lurch, the way it usually did when he remembered how he’d been prostituted in his childhood.

He didn’t want her here, didn’t want those memories moving through him, but…she was here and he was going to have to deal with it.

“Duncan is in here,” Methos said, leading her to the bedroom. He opened the door and stepped inside first, so as not to intimidate her by walking behind her; though, gods knew, she wasn’t a woman who was easily intimidated, else she would never have ventured here alone. Once within the room, he stepped to the side, where he would remain within her peripheral vision.

It was no surprise to see that Duncan was exactly where he’d left him, sitting on the edge of the bed, his right profile to the door. He could almost see Cassandra reacting to Mac’s lack of response at her arrival.

At first, she was completely focused on the silent Highlander, but Cassandra hadn’t gone three feet into the room when she stopped dead in her tracks and stared over towards the bureau where their empty suitcases and the unused medical supplies were still stacked.

Wondering what nefarious accusation she was about to make, Methos eased slowly towards Mac, making no sudden moves, but…she didn’t seem to be paying the least bit of attention to either of the other Immortals in the room. Her narrowed green gaze was focused on the dresser.

“What’s over there?” Cassandra asked after a moment, almost seeming afraid to step any further into the room.

“What?” Methos questioned.

“What is in that brown leather travel bag beside the green duffel bag?” Cassandra demanded.

He couldn’t help but shiver. She was pointing at Myrddid’s harp bag. Methos had known from her Chronicles that she was considered a witch. But it had been fifteen centuries since he’d met anyone with this degree of true sensitivity.

Myrddid had always had reactions like this. He’d enter a room and, before he could relax, he’d need to see whatever magical or sacred objects inside that had set off his psychic alarms.

“It’s…just a harp. It belonged to a friend of mine who’s been dead fifteen-hundred years.

“May I see it?” Cassandra asked, still not moving into the room, for all that she’d searched for Duncan for over a year.

She was just like Myrddid, Methos recognized, unable to enter a space until she knew what powers held sway there, whether it would be safe for her to stay. Methos couldn’t count the number of times he and his master would have to set off into the pouring rain or a blizzard after trying to shelter in a place that contained objects or even ley lines that Myrddid considered dangerous to interact with.

“Of course,” Methos agreed, not quite sure why he found this odd request comforting.

Bracing himself to touch the instrument, Methos went to the other side of the room, retrieved the bag, and then knelt down on the Oriental rug to carefully unwrap it. Once it was unveiled, Methos left it sitting on its sheepskin, then backed over to the bed so as not to be hulking over Cassandra while she examined it. If she would even chose to. There was every possibility, she might leave…which he had wanted her to do since he’d opened the front door, but now wasn’t so certain.

Myrddid had been the most powerful healer he’d ever met. When Darius had killed him at Paris’ gates, his master had been over four thousand years old. But he’d only been practicing the healing arts for two of those four millennia. Cassandra had been working with the Mystery for all of her three-thousand years. Methos would never have thought of this before, but now that she was here, she was the closest thing he was going to find to someone of Myrddid’s caliber of power.

Standing motionless beside the bed, trying to make himself as unnoticeable as possible, Methos watched as she slowly approached the tiny wooden harp. She knelt down on her knees beside it and placed her hands about an inch over the wood – careful not to make actual contact, Methos noted. He’d seen Myrddid do that so many times that he wasn’t even surprised.

After a few minutes she slowly withdrew her hands and then rose to her feet.

“You said this belonged to a friend of yours?” her tone made it clear that she believed he’d lied to her. Or perhaps it was the idea that he could have or keep a friend that was unbelievable to her.

“My master, actually,” Methos informed.

“He owned you?” that seemed to be the only interpretation she could put to his words, if she believed him at all.

Methos wasn’t used to being held in such disdain anymore. Not even MacLeod at his most self-righteous had been this suspicious of everything he said. But who could blame her, he reminded himself. There wasn’t anything in the man she’d known him to be that would ever have attracted Myrddid’s interest, except perhaps on an adversarial level.

“I was apprenticed to him for over eighty years and his friend for over fifty before that,” Methos said. The last wasn’t entirely true. He and Myrddid had co-existed as the only two Immortals in Artos’ court for nearly the first thirty years of their acquaintance. There had been no love lost between them in those days. They had both seemed to silently agree to avoid each other out of love for Artos, but she didn’t need to know that.

“You’re telling me that the man this harp belonged to took you on as a student?” the scorn in her laughter stung like acid.

Biting his lip, Methos gave a tight nod and whispered, “Yes.”

The laughter slowly died from her face as the truth of his words penetrated. Her gaze turned back to the harp, looking for all the world as if she were seeking confirmation from it.

After another pensive pause, Cassandra hesitantly said, “The person who owned this…he was no novice to the secret workings of the world. I can still feel his spirit echoing through this harp. He would have been able to see what you had been…the way I can smell it on you even now like a rotting corpse.”

Though it wasn’t phrased as such, it was as much of a question as an insult.

“If he knew, he never spoke of it,” Methos said, making sure he met her eyes squarely so that she would read the truth of it.

“He had to have known,” Cassandra insisted.

“He watched me orchestrate events that tore apart the world as we knew it then,” Methos reported, figuring it was better that she hear the truth from his own lips rather than get glimpses of it from her magics and then end up holding that against him as well. Methos continued with, “He…forgave me and taught me how to forgive myself. He was a great man, in every sense of the word.”

And if he’d thought this judgmental woman was in any way like Myrddid, he was sadly mistaken, Methos recognized, reading the contempt in her eyes. But…just because she didn’t have his master’s capacity to forgive didn’t mean that she didn’t have his abilities to heal. Even with Myrddid…it had taken twenty years before the emotional wounds had faded enough for them to interact again. Cassandra had never seen any side of him that would make anyone inclined to either trust or forgive very fast.

“Look, you didn’t come here for a history lesson. You came here to help Mac. Can you work with that harp in your space or do you need it…or me…gone?” Methos asked.

“It’s fine here,” Cassandra surprised him by saying.

“And me?” Methos asked.

“I’d prefer to keep you in my sight at all times,” there was nothing the least bit warm about that remark.

Methos nodded his understanding and then went to sit on the hard-backed chair in the far corner of the room, so that he would be as far as possible from her, but still within view as she finally moved to the four-poster bed to see MacLeod.

“Duncan?” she called from a few feet away.

There was, unremarkably enough, no response.

Cassandra stood still for a moment with her eyes closed. Methos heard her humming under her breath, the deep vocalization growing in volume.

“Mmmmmmm…Duncaaan….mmmmm…Duncaaaan….” it was an eerie, harmonious chant that raised Methos’ hackles, even as it upped the power in the room to astronomical levels. It was like the song Circe had sung to lure Ulysses to her island, a deep, irresistible enchantment.

To his astonishment, Methos saw Duncan’s chin slowly lift as his head turned in Cassandra’s direction. It was the first time MacLeod had come anywhere near focusing on anything external in the six months Methos had had him back.

His heart leaping with hope, he watched Cassandra walk straight up to Mac, who seemed to be looking at her, rather than through her as was his wont. She placed her hands, which were old and cronishly withered for such a young-looking Immortal, on MacLeod’s temples, closed her eyes and just hummed at Duncan for what felt like forever.

Finally, she let her hands fall from MacLeod’s face, stopped humming and took a few steps back from the bed. The power levels in the room plummeted as though turned off like a light switch.

Mac’s blank stare had returned again, but…for the few minutes she’d been working on him, there had been something like response.

Methos couldn’t have stayed on the far side of the room then if he’d been tied there. As soon as she withdrew a few feet from the bed, he was at Mac’s side, smoothing the dark hair back on his lover’s brow, staring down into the once-again distant gaze with the first sense of true hope he’d experienced yet.

After a few minutes, he looked up to find Cassandra watching him.

The confusion in her face was clear. The abstraction that normally followed any type of spirit work was clearing from her features. After a moment of simply staring at MacLeod, she directed her gaze Methos’ way and asked, “How did he get like this? If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was bespelled.”

Methos gulped. Bespelled. He had screwed up…again. “When we first got Mac back from Longford, he was…comatose. I brought him here in the hopes that the hot springs’ curative powers might help him. But there was no change and…” he took a deep breath and just said it, “…and on the winter solstice I used my teacher’s harp to try to heal MacLeod.”

To his surprise, she didn’t explode on him. Instead, Cassandra looked from him to the harp to Mac on the bed, and then back at him, before echoing, “You used the harp?” in a slow tone that sounded as though she weren’t certain she’d heard correctly.

“Yes,” he waited for her justifiable censure, but she said nothing for the longest time.

Finally, she asked, “What was your spell?”

He met her unreadable gaze and said, “Mac conscious.”

Cassandra nodded.

“What did I do wrong?” he asked, only realizing after he’d spoken how open to attack he’d left himself.

With a sardonic lift of her arched brow, Cassandra answered, “We don’t have time to belabor the wrongs you did historically. As for what you’ve wrought now…wrong isn’t the right word. I believe you’ve somehow managed to separate his body and soul. You forced your will upon him with your powers. Duncan is conscious, as you willed it. However, he wasn’t ready to return yet. Whatever spiritual issues he was working out were unfinished when you tried to force him back, so…I think he has separated himself from this plain. I think he’s gone off to find peace in another realm.”

Methos stared down at the floor, as disheartened as though she’d told him he’d killed Mac.

After another moment’s consideration, Cassandra said, “His energy level is extraordinarily high for an Immortal who expended so much energy dying and reviving for eight months straight. I know how powerful he was after Bordeaux, but…he shouldn’t be this strong, not now, not after all that.”

Stars, but she was good!

Wondering how she would respond to what he was about to tell her, Methos hesitantly explained, “When I arrived at the warehouse where Longford was holding Mac, the Macedonian had MacLeod strapped to a guillotine – to ensure that I wouldn’t resist Longford’s taking my head--”

“Which you did, of course,” Cassandra interjected, her expression making it clear what she thought of him.

Methos shrugged. “I wanted both Mac and myself to live. When I defeated Longford,” he purposefully did not mention Dawson’s interference, for he had no idea how close a relationship his former victims had had, and he didn’t want Joe taking any flak for saving their lives, “Mac was very rough physically, as well as completely unresponsive mentally. I thought…it doesn’t matter what I thought. What I did was strap Longford to the guillotine and then lay Mac on top of him. I pulled the switch and ran. The Quickening healed most of Mac’s physical injuries, but did nothing to bring him around.”

Cassandra just nodded at that, her chestnut hair shimmering under the artificial light overhead as it played across her shoulders.

“You don’t seem surprised,” Methos noted.

“That it didn’t bring him around?” she asked. At his nod, she explained, “Mac was extremely fond of Ritchie. I never met his student, but he spoke so much of Ryan, that I felt I had. Duncan wouldn’t have found it easy to endure that forced Quickening. You know how he…”

“Broods?” Methos supplied. Were this Grace, he would have done so with a smile, but he was taking no liberties with Cassandra. He knew it was useless to try to ingratiate himself to her. She thought he was the Anti-Christ…for good reason.

“Takes things to heart,” she corrected. “I don’t know that he could live with being forced to take the Quickening of someone he was that close to, especially if he felt in any way responsible for the boy’s death in the first place.”

“So you’re saying it was being forced to take Ryan’s Quickening that made him retreat, not the ordeal he endured?” Methos asked, shivering because it was something he’d never considered, but it sounded entirely plausible.

“I’m sure the pain didn’t help any,” Cassandra said, “but…I’m sensing more guilt than fear in him.”

“You could feel him?” he asked, nonplussed, unable to understand how she could feel Mac, while he’d been inside the man’s mind and found nothing but strangers.

She gave another of those slow nods.

Considering what she’d told him. Methos quietly asked, “So what you’re saying is that I probably drove Mac further away by forcing him to take another Quickening?”

“I don’t know. His mind is very active, but not…present,” Cassandra said. “I don’t know what he’s so absorbed in…what?”

Obviously, his expression must have given the horror he felt away.

Methos sighed. Had he become so transparent that even potential enemies could read him at a glance? Or was it her former association with him that gave her such insight?

“It’s my belief that Duncan is…reliving his former lives, one by one, in no particular order,” Methos reported. He didn’t want to broach this topic, certainly not with Cassandra, who would kill him for their past, let alone any present transgressions he might have committed. But withholding facts from her was the same as doing so with one’s doctor. In order to help – if she were even willing to help them – she would need to know everything he could tell her about Duncan’s condition.

“And you would know this because?” she was watching him with that inscrutable expression again.

Methos looked down at the ever-silent man on the bed, finding it easier to address what he had to say to MacLeod then to face Cassandra’s unavoidable accusation. He knew how wrong what he was doing with Mac each afternoon was. He knew how this would look from the outside…how it might even look to Mac from the inside once he was well again.

“Mac and I have…a strange kind of…emotional and mental connection that allows us to--”

“You’ve been molesting him while he’s insensible?” the disgust in her voice hit him like a physical blow.

Cringing inside at her understandable reaction, one fact still penetrated Methos’ shame. Cassandra knew what he was talking about, without his having to explain, she’d understood the type of connection he was speaking about. Still, he had to deal with the most important issue first. Forcing his gaze to meet hers, he took a deep breath and quietly explained, “We were lovers for over four months before he was abducted,” Methos paused for a second, waiting for the inevitable disbelief, disgust or questions, but Cassandra didn’t even seem surprised. Taking heart from that small blessing, he continued, “When Mac was rescued, his back and leg muscles were horribly atrophied. He couldn’t even straighten out for weeks. I’ve been giving him massages and soaking him in the hot springs since we arrived here in November. Once his muscles began to uncramp, his daily massage would excite him and…I would ease his need by fellating him.”

Methos knew his face was flaming. He could feel its burning heat.

Her next question was hardly unexpected. “You expect me to believe that you’ve just…serviced him while he’s this defenseless and took nothing for yourself?”

Methos was impressed that she could discuss the subject in such civilized terms. This had to be hard for her. She was, after all, talking to the same man who’d raped her while she was defenseless. Why should she believe he’d be any different with Mac?

“I want him to heal, Cassandra. I’m not about to do anything to jeopardize either his physical or emotional integrity. That…isn’t something he’s ever shared with me. I’m not about to take it from him while his mind is out to lunch.”

“You’ve done it before,” she sneered.

Though it was hard, he held her stare. “Not in three thousand years, I haven’t. If you don’t believe me, you can check him out yourself.”

“What point would there be? Immortals heal too fast for there to be any lingering damage,” Cassandra reminded.

Methos flinched at the word damage, remembering a time when no one rose from his bed unbruised – if they rose at all. Feeling almost as low as she thought him, Methos quietly reminded, “There is other physical evidence that can be checked for. You won’t find any. Beyond getting him off when he’s aroused, I haven’t violated his trust.”

Oddly enough, in the staring match that followed, it was Cassandra who lowered her gaze first.

Finally, she looked back up at him and asked uncertainly, “You say that you were only his lover since shortly before his abduction?” At his nod, she continued, “You weren’t…with him that way when Kronos found you in Seacouver?”

Methos gave a slow, negative shake of his head. Sensing that there was something motivating her question beyond idle curiosity, he queried, “Why do you ask?”

“When Mac and I were searching for you and the other Horsemen, I tried to find you in my crystal. I saw you and Duncan together that way.”

Sensing how disturbed she was by the error, Methos softly reminded, “Time is fluid, not linear. You can never know when a vision is happening. Believe me, if I’ve learned anything these last few weeks, it’s that.”

He could see the visible start she gave. After a moment she cautiously asked, “What do you mean – after the last few weeks?”

“Every day I touch his mind, it seems that Mac is somewhere, someone different. There’s no order to the timelines Duncan is traveling. One day, it’s Imperial Rome, the next Bronze Age Ireland.”

“How can you be certain he’s not imagining all this?” Cassandra questioned. “Past lives don’t usually come into play with our kind.”

“Oh? My teacher visited his regularly. It was said that he lived backwards….” The quality of her shocked silence announcing the mistake he’d made, Methos held his breath and waited. He was not disappointed.

After a moment, she said, “I’ve only heard that said about one of my Lady’s chosen. You’re not suggesting that one such as he would take you on as his apprentice?”

“Do you want me to lie? My past is what it is. The good and the bad,” he felt like something was going to snap inside of him if the hostility didn’t leave those lovely green eyes. Horrified, Methos realized that it wasn’t his temper he was about to lose. Taking a deep breath, he pushed his volatile emotions down and reminded, “But it isn’t my past we were discussing. We were talking about what’s happening to Duncan.”

Cassandra seemed to force herself to focus and be civil. “I still don’t see how you can be so certain that these are memories and not dreams. The two are often hard to distinguish, even for those skilled at the craft.”

“I know they’re memories because someone I knew quite intimately showed up in them…someone who lived and died centuries before Mac was born. Everything about Duncan’s recall was perfect – the time period, the location, the person’s appearance,” Methos insisted.

To his relief, some of the hardness left her gaze. Like Myrddid, the pieces of the Mystery that were set before her to be unraveled would always take precedence to any personal issues.

“You’re saying that you and Duncan knew the same person in this distant age?” Cassandra asked, seemingly intrigued.

Methos gave a slow, negative shake of his head, “No, I’m saying that Duncan was that person. Mac recreated one of the most important nights I ever spent with one of the most important people in my past.”

“If you have opened yourselves to the Forging, Duncan will have access to your memories while you are joined. It is…frightening what can be learned at such times.”

“The Forging?” Methos repeated, feeling ignorant. He knew she was talking about that bizarre bond they had, for the word described what the conduit did to them perfectly – it forged them together like molten steel and made them stronger when they separated – but its name didn’t help him understand its nature.

“The connection you spoke of having with Duncan,” Cassandra said, looking at him like he was the idiot he felt himself to be. “Or did you lie of that, too?”

“No, I…it was new to us. We hadn’t…” Methos met her gaze and gave her the truth, “I was afraid of it. Mac entered my mind that way once on a night when I was too traumatized to keep him distracted, but all he got from me that night was the ancient past…my days with the Horsemen.”

“And he stayed?” she gaped.

Methos lowered his gaze. “I don’t pretend to understand him, Cassandra. He’s…beyond my ken. You and I both know that he’s too good for me.” Realizing what he’d just admitted to this enemy, Methos swallowed hard and shut his mouth.

The silence that followed was deafening. Methos waited for her to attack him, to verbally flay him alive at this show of weakness by telling him just how unfit he was to breathe the same air as Duncan MacLeod, but Cassandra astounded him by keeping her silence.

Finally, he pulled himself together and asked, “This Forging -- what is it?”

“It’s rare…very rare, possibly even unheard of in these days of the Game,” Cassandra said, studying him with an expression that made him even more uneasy than simply being with her was. “The only man I experienced it with was greatly favored by my Lady.” Methos took that to mean he was an adept in the Mystery. “He said our kind got our power two ways – either we killed or loved for it. The first was easier, so, as in all things, it was the route most of us would take. But those few with courage enough to choose the path of the Forging, those Immortals would grow exponentially with each union. I don’t pretend to understand how, but it is as if the power that makes up the Quickening within us joins together and exchanges some vital force that makes both parties stronger when they separate. That’s what I was sensing in Duncan tonight, not Longford’s Quickening.”

Methos gulped and looked away from her. When he thought he could face her again, he asked. “Can you help him?”

They were probably the four hardest words he’d had to voice in his life. To have to ask this woman he’d so wronged - this woman who wanted only to see him dead – for help was an irony beyond bearing.

Her gaze made it plain that she appreciated that fact.

“Perhaps,” Cassandra answered.

Methos knew if he were not involved in the picture that there would be no perhaps about it. She would do whatever needed to be done for Duncan’s sake. But it was possible that her hatred of him eclipsed even her love of Duncan, whom she’d watched grow from boyhood.

“Am I the variable in your equation?” he asked, needing to know.

She didn’t even pretend to misunderstand him. She was not so dissimilar to Myrddid, after all. “How could you not be? Your presence and interest in this makes it…difficult.”

She’d hated him longer and deeper than any woman had hated man in history…for far better reason. She wanted to kill him, or barring that, to see him suffer. And while Duncan languished like this…she knew he would suffer. Were she to cure her oldest friend, she would make her oldest enemy’s dreams come true. It was a difficult conundrum, the type of problem Myrddid had always been putting before him.

But for once, Methos had no trouble knowing what the answer to the riddle was.

He looked at this woman who should have been made a goddess three-thousand years ago, but whom he’d made slave and worse, and knew what he had to do, with a clarity of conscience he’d rarely experienced outside of Duncan’s bed.

“If you cure him, I will gift you with my head,” Methos whispered, barely able to get the words out.

“You expect me to believe that? After you made the same promise to Longford – your life for his, remember?”

Obviously, she’d seen a lot more than just shattered images in her crystal, Methos acknowledged.

“I swear it. You can have your revenge on me, if you but spare Duncan,” he all but begged. If that hardness didn’t leave her eyes, he would be down on his knees in another minute.

“Why should I believe that you would agree to die, especially once your lover is healed?” she challenged. The fact that a healer such as she was even considering his bargain told him how irredeemably she must abhor him.

Not even pretending a compromise were possible, Methos gave her the truth of his heart, “This was done to Duncan because of his association with me. I can’t heal him. I have tried. I…can’t live with this on my head.”

“You could live with Death on your conscience, but you can’t live with this?” Cassandra sneered.

“I am not Death anymore. I am only Methos – a man who has made too many mistakes to be forgiven. But…he forgave me…he…loved me. And because of that, he will live. He must live. Please…don’t do it for me. Do it for that young boy you saved from Roland, the one who truly believed with all his heart that good would always defeat evil, because it had to. Do it for Duncan.”

Her face going very pale, Cassandra looked down at the handsome man on the bed, who was oblivious to the ominous deal being made not two feet away.

“If I cure him…I can have your head? No treachery? No arguments? No challenges? No fleeing?” Cassandra tested.

“I swear it,” Methos bit his lip, then added, “on his head.”

She nodded. “We have a deal.”

Swallowing hard, for he could see his death in her yes, he nodded.

Taking a deep breath, he rallied his courage. There was still the small detail of Duncan’s healing to get through before that balance would come due. And before this powerful sorceress could do anything, she would require rest.

“Come, I’ll show you to your room,” Methos said, changing the subject, for to dwell on it was madness.

“You want me to stay here…in this cottage with you?” she sounded appalled.

“It’s almost a forty minute drive to town. I know the time of night you’ll be working most of your healings. You’ll be too tired to make that drive back. Or do you think you can heal him in one session?” Methos tensed. He hadn’t thought to pay his price that soon.

“No, it will take some work,” she admitted.

“Then stay. It will be better for you to be near him, won’t it? And you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the…energies of this place.”

“You weren’t lying about studying with Myrddid before – were you?” he could see how totally astonished she was.

Not bothering to answer, he just said, “Come, I’ll get your bag from your car.” Looking Duncan’s way, he forced a smile and promised, “I’ll be right back. Sit tight.”

Trying not to think too hard about selling his soul away, Methos led his future executioner down the hall to the room closest to the bathroom that had been Grace’s before she’d started bunking in with Joe. Attempting to shake off the weirdness of the setup, he acquainted her with the accommodations as he would any guest to his home, pretending not to notice the wariness that never left her eyes for a moment.

When he left her, he knew that he would not be the only one sleeping with a knife under his pillow tonight.

************************

For all that she’d had trouble getting to sleep, once she attained it, Cassandra slept deeply and peacefully. After being so close to him again, she’d thought to dream of Death, of her days as slave and nights as whore, but her dreams were unexpectedly peaceful that night.

When she opened her eyes on the blindingly white room the next morning, she was momentarily bewildered as to where she was. The experience was so unlike the last time she’d awoken in Death’s holdings, where the first thing her eyes had fallen upon were the stacked skulls of her people, that it was hard to believe this place was his. The room was perfectly charming, warm and welcoming, with bright white walls, pastel oil paintings and more creature comforts than her cottage back home had ever had.

Even from where she lay in the bed, she had a spectacular view of the snow-blanketed Alps in the distance. Most of the snow had melted from the ground in the valley here, leaving the Earth a muddy brown, on the verge of sprouting.

The magic that pulsed through this abandoned abbey shivered through her as she lay there in that luxurious bed, trying to get a feel for the place. The power in the ley lines underneath these ruins was as strong and nurturing as those that ran beneath her own cottage back home, but with subtly different energies, as all such crossings had. It would take her a few days to learn their ways.

It was strange that Death would be drawn to a place like this. There was no darkness here at all, just power, the kind needed to work Great Spells, the like of which the world hadn’t known for millennia. Strange, indeed.

But, then, everything about this experience was peculiar, Cassandra acknowledged. To see Death playing caretaker to such a frighteningly changed Duncan…it was all hard to believe. Sitting up in the bed, she tried to get a fix on her housemates’ presences. They both were in the kitchen, she thought, the metallic clang of a pot confirming that.

Things had not gone at all as she’d thought they would last night. Were it not for that ancient, ringing signature of his, Cassandra wasn’t certain that she would have even recognized the exhausted man who’d opened the door as Death. Methos had looked…worn out, both emotionally and physically, like he’d taken all that he could possibly bear and that one more setback would finish him. The arrogant, handsome killer of three-thousand years ago had finally gotten his just deserts. For years, she’d wanted to see him suffer. And she’d gotten her wish. Death looked haunted - his clothes hanging off him, dark rings beneath his eyes, his hair long and shaggy, pulled tight off his stubbled face, as though a fast pony tail were all he had the time for….

And the most incredible gift of all - he’d offered her his head for Duncan’s healing. That was so not a part of the man she’d known’s character that she could hardly wrap her mind around the concept. She didn’t believe him, of course, for all that he’d seemed entirely sincere. She knew that he was just playing with her mind, the same way he doubtlessly had with Longford, telling her what he knew she wanted to hear to get her to do what he wanted, for it was no longer within his power to force her to do so. He was a master manipulator. That would never change. She’d watched him play them all – herself, Silas, that devil Kaspian…even Kronos. Death had no heart, no conscience. Then or now.

But have his head, she would, one way or the other. He wouldn’t escape her this time.

It should have been a sweet thought, but it left her feeling vaguely guilty. Like everything that had happened from the moment Methos had opened the door last night, the idea of taking her vengeance sat wrong in her heart.

It was that damn harp that had confused everything, she realized. The power that resonated through it was one of the most benign, bright forces she’d ever touched. She’d seen its owner in her mind’s eyes, the tall, white-haired Immortal who’d worked his magics through that instrument for centuries, felt his inherent goodness. A man like that would have no more truck with Death than…than a man like Duncan MacLeod would. Yet that harp cried out for Methos’ touch like a neglected puppy locked in a crate, confirming its master’s investment in Methos, while she had seen Duncan’s attachment to the fiend herself, in Bordeaux when the Highlander wouldn’t let her take Death’s head and in her crystal, where she’d seen what was between them.

Cassandra could understand how that devil had fooled Duncan. MacLeod had a soft heart, and was therefore easy to manipulate. And, Lord and Lady knew, that devil had a persuasive tongue.

But the harp’s owner…he would have seen through Methos’ lies. There was no fooling someone with that level of skill. Cassandra would have thought Methos was lying about his apprenticeship, except…the harp bore an echo of Methos’ psychic engrams and, though she hated him with almost too much passion to even hear his words, she, too, was skilled enough not to miss the truth when it was there before her eyes, for all that everything in her wanted to refute it…which left her mind swirling in a frustrating blend of hatred and doubt.

Sighing, because sooner or later she was going to have to face that fiend again today, Cassandra sought to calm her raging heart. The state of her full bladder made it plain that it was going to be sooner, rather than later. Giving into the inevitable, she swung her legs over the side of the bed, picked up her thick white terrycloth robe from where she’d left it at the foot of the bed last night, slipped her feet into her travel slippers, shouldered into her robe and cinched it tight at her waist, crossed to the door and silently eased it open.

Her bedroom faced out onto the kitchen. She froze at that first glimpse of her enemy through the crack in the open door, the storm of hatred pounding in her almost too fierce to be borne. She wanted his head. She wanted to rip his throat open and drink his blood, dig her long nails deep into his testicles and twist them off…

She took a deep breath, trying to stamp those feelings down. She would never be able to work a healing in this state.

As she paused there, for all intents and purposes, spying on her housemates, she took in the scene before her. Her door looked out onto the kitchen table. Duncan was seated at the far end, directly facing her, Methos was in profile, his attention firmly focused on MacLeod. There were plates of eggs, bacon and oatmeal in front of both men. Methos’ meal was totally untouched, she noticed. Fascinated, she watched as Methos fed Mac, spoonful by slow spoonful.

The fried eggs disappeared fairly fast, but the oatmeal was taking a bit longer.

“No bacon till you finish your mush,” she heard Methos warn in a voice so gentle she didn’t even recognize it.

Stunned, she saw Methos give a soft chuckle and say, “Okay, if you insist. One slice of bacon, but then you have to promise to finish your mush.”

A weird feeling of…she knew not what twisting uneasily through her as she watched Methos break a piece off a slice of bacon, pop it in Mac’s mouth, then wait until the Highlander slowly chewed and swallowed it before feeding the rest of the slice to him. Once the bacon was gone, Methos bent over, placed a soft kiss on Mac’s visibly sticky mouth, sat back and then began the arduous process of slowly feeding the apparently despised oatmeal to MacLeod.

Easing the door closed, she leaned back against the wall and squeezed her eyes shut as the hot tears gushed out. To see Duncan MacLeod so helpless was like a knife to the heart. To know that she’d had some part in making him that way was unbearable. And to observe how Death was talking to the unresponsive man, feeding him…nurturing him…was the most disturbing part of all.

Death was simply not capable of that type of caring. Death didn’t love; he didn’t cherish…he used and discarded. The thought passed through her mind that perhaps this had been a show staged for her benefit, but…she’d seen last night how Methos continually spoke to the oblivious Highlander, updating him about everything that was going on while Duncan sat there trapped in his never-never land. She knew an automatic habit when she saw one. This was obviously something the man did all day – sat there chattering away to someone who had all the awareness of a dead trout. If it weren’t Death doing it, it would have been heart breaking. As it was….

Hardening her own heart, Cassandra dried her cheeks, smoothed her tangled hair down, made sure her robe was primly closed, opened the door to its full extension, and actually exited this time.

There was no mistaking the start Methos gave when he heard her there behind him. She could see his back muscles stiffen. He broke off in mid-sentence whatever he’d been saying to Duncan as he leaned over him, persuading him to eat the oatmeal. From the tension in his tight held form, Methos almost looked like he expected her to come up behind him and hack his head off while he fed Mac.

Once Duncan accepted the current spoonful, Methos sat back into his own chair and looked up at her. The rings beneath his red-rimmed eyes were dark purple this morning. He looked like he hadn’t slept a wink all night. But his loose blue Henley and jeans were clean and neat, and he was freshly showered and shaven, as was Mac, were the damp length of his hair any indicator. Methos actually forced a smile and offered her a nervous-sounding, “ ‘morning.”

Cassandra gave a cool nod, her gaze scouring both men. Methos was a wreck, but Mac looked perfectly rested. The Highlander’s gray sweater and black jeans fit him as well as anything she’d seen Duncan dress himself in. Were it not for his vacant gaze, Duncan would have looked totally normal.

“There’s coffee in the pot, and tea in the tin on the stove,” Methos continued as though he hadn’t noticed her lack of response, which he probably had a great deal of experience doing after dealing with Mac as long as he had. “I didn’t know how you liked your eggs…”

“I don’t want you to--” she began to protest, enraged that he would try to ply her with such mindless pleasantries.

“Look,” he cut her off, softly, but firmly, “this is difficult for us both. I know you’d rather choke to death than break bread with me, but you’re stuck here. You have to eat. I’m cooking for Mac and me. There’s plenty. You may as well join us.”

Cassandra was used to employing that reasonable tone, not having it leveled against her.

When she still made no move to join them at the table, Methos sighed and said, “We’re done. We’ve got some laundry to take care of. I’ll leave you to cook your own in peace. Just leave the dishes when you’re through. Come along, Mac.”

Without another word, Methos reached down to guide MacLeod to his feet, hooked their elbows and led the Highlander into the bedroom they shared.

Telling herself that she had no cause to feel guilty, Cassandra stared down at Methos’ untouched meal for a moment before moving to the bathroom.

When she went to find them an hour later, the sound of music pulsing from below led Cassandra through the door on the far side of the kitchen as much as the fact that she’d seen Methos, laundry hamper in hand, lead Mac down there while she was eating. Carman’s famous Toreador piece was blaring through the dim stone stairwell as she followed it in a downwards spiral. These stairs and whatever lay under them were clearly much older than the cottage above.

She could hear Methos’ voice under the music. The affection in it was impossible to miss as she caught him mid-complaint, “…simply cannot understand how anyone with any musical tastes what-so-ever could voluntarily suffer this dreck. Claudia Jardine was right. You must be stone deaf. She said-”

The words cut off. Cassandra knew he’d sensed her. The pale face turned her way as she rounded the final turn in the ancient stairwell confirmed it.

A little startled, she looked at the space she found herself in. Electricity had been run down to this area. Theoretically, it was a laundry room, in that a washer, dryer and folding table had been crammed along the limited wall space. But the tiny space she found Methos and MacLeod in had originally been a vestibule leading to a series of halls, were the gloomy passages beyond any indication. Mac was sitting on a long wooden table in the tiny island of light, staring at the clothes spinning in the dryer window, oblivious to both his companion and the boom box blaring at the far end of the table.

“Would you mind turning that off?” she asked, shouting to be heard over the racket; although Methos’ deeper voice had carried quite well above it.

“My pleasure,” Methos said, leaning past Mac across the table to turn it off.

“Why do you play it if you hate it so?” she asked, unable to stop herself. The selfish beast she’d known three-thousand years wouldn’t suffer even the smallest inconvenience for another, let alone inflict that kind of torture on himself.

Methos gave a self-conscious looking shrug and said, “Mac loves it. I thought it might draw him back. Did you need something?”

If she hadn’t known better, she would have sworn he was trying to be genuinely helpful, but she did know better, so she didn’t make that mistake.

“Duncan,” Cassandra answered. “I’d like to start working with him.”

Methos nodded and crossed to stand in front of MacLeod’s knees. Taking hold of his chin, the man she’d known as Death directed Mac’s faraway stare towards his face.

“You’re going to go with Cassandra for a while, Mac. She’s going to try to help you find your way back. I’ll be here finishing this up. I’ll come to get you when you’re through,” Methos promised, sounding like a mother sending her only child off to his first day of school.

She pretended not to notice the soft kiss Methos gave to Mac’s forehead before guiding him off the table onto his feet. Realizing that MacLeod wouldn’t come to her, she crossed to fetch him, hooking her elbow through his as she’d seen Methos do.

“Watch him on the stairs,” Methos said. “He has a tendency to stumble. If you take him outside, his coat is the long black one on the far right hook beside the front door.”

About to admonish him for his unnecessary fretting, Cassandra stopped herself. No matter what he’d been, it was clear that Methos had some genuine feelings for Duncan, difficult as that was for her to believe. He’d been taking care of Duncan non-stop for nearly six months now; it was obviously hard for him to just hand Duncan over to someone else, someone who hated him. And hate him, she did, but above all else, she was a healer. She could see the state her ancient enemy was in. If this anxious man on the verge of collapse had been a stranger, she would have urged him to go upstairs, eat something and rest for a while.

As it was, she nodded and assured him, “Duncan will be fine.”

“Yes, I’m certain he will be…with your help,” something very sad flickered through his red-rimmed eyes for an instant before Methos nodded and turned back to sorting clothes for the washing machine.

Cassandra was halfway up the stairs before she finally interpreted what she’d seen. Methos obviously wanted Mac well more than anything, but Duncan’s recovery would mean his death. Wishing she’d had better sense than to ever speak to the Macedonian, Cassandra led Mac to the front door, paused long enough to get him into his coat and don her own black shawl before she led him outside to find a place to work where she would be less aware of Methos’ movements.

They ended up in the garden. The ground was soggy underfoot from the newly melted snow, the air cold and crisp, but the sun was blazing down on them out of the bluest sky she could remember. She led Duncan to a stone bench in the center that was flanked by bare rose bushes and carpeted with dead grass. He followed her like an aging lap dog and stayed where she put him.

“Oh, Duncan,” she sighed, not understanding how Methos bore this day after day. It hurt her just to look at him like this.

But she was here to fix that. She would heal him, Lady willing.

Humming softly, she circled around Mac in a three-foot radius, following the course the sun would take as she warded the area in which she would work. That done, she came to sit before Duncan in the damp grass.

Closing her eyes, she put all thoughts of Death from her mind and focused on centering herself. She could feel the abbey’s energy pulsing through her now, could sense how spring was ready to burst forth at any moment…the way she wanted Duncan’s personality to burst forth, healed and well again. Plugging into those bright powers, she started to sing the ancient songs that had always called forth her protectors and then began her work in earnest.

“All right, Duncan,” she said softly, dreamily, feeling the sun on her skin and hair and the fertile earth below her, “let’s see where you are today – shall we?”

Taking his hands in hers, she reached out for him from the inside, the way she used to when the world was younger and the Mystery held sway, before Man’s machines had stolen the Earth’s heart away. Her Lady still held this ground as her own and her strength fed Cassandra’s, enhancing it, fine-tuning her will until…

Until a world ripe with summer flashed into being around her. The place was humming with power; although, it didn’t appear to be in use for any ceremonies at the moment.

Staring around her, Cassandra realized that this wasn’t like the experiences Methos had described where he became someone in the drama. She’d walked the past this way many times before. She was merely an observer to wherever Duncan had brought her, as unseen as the air around her.

The scene was a familiar one. Bright tents and banners in an open area between old woods declared that there was some kind of faire in progress. Excited crowds of people in early medieval garb moved among the vendors, while horsemen in crude armor played in tourneys on a rough field at Cassandra’s end of the scene.

Studying the armor, banners and setup, Cassandra thought she was somewhere in the Celtic Isles, not long after Rome’s fall. A shout from the field confirmed that fact. Welsh, a very ancient dialect, at that.

Cassandra searched the area, wondering which one of the people before her was Duncan. There were so many.

Turning to look behind her, she froze in place, stopped dead by an image that even she had believed nothing but legend. She was standing in front of a rocky outcrop at the edge of the forest. There, buried in a gray stone of about chest height was the hilt of a sword. It was glowing an eldritch silver in the afternoon sunlight. She couldn’t imagine what it would look like by moonlight.

As she watched, a golden haired, frantic-looking boy of about twelve came barreling up, ran almost right through her, and pulled the sword out of the rock, turning quickly to race with it back down the hill towards a young knight waiting on horseback, as though he’d done nothing remarkable. Within seconds, the whole world exploded around him.

The scene changed. That same lad, not so young now, deep in the forest in earnest conversation with the white haired Immortal whose image Cassandra had felt in Methos’ harp last night.

Another turn of the wheel and that youth was stumbling his way to manhood with a dark-haired girl five or six years his senior, mounting her with a first-time intensity that was unmistakable. Cassandra felt the energy spark that heralded mortal conception as the pair groaned in sweaty release.

The scene shifted as the wheel of his life turned again. He was a man grown now, not an untried youth, a king among kings, a young Apollo on a gray stallion, garbed in golden armor, silver sword in hand, his band of followers stretching across the battle plain as far as the eye could see. And there at his side, that white haired, rugged Immortal, guiding his every move…an Immortal who carried no sword, only the ash staff of his calling.

Now it was that same golden armored warrior standing on one end of a bridge, his troubled blue eyes staring at his moaning men on either side of him as he approached the single man who’d taken out nine of his complement. Cassandra shivered as she studied his opponent’s tall, lean build. The dark hair, the way the helmed figure held his head…she knew that man. Sure enough, at the end of the desperate battle, the dented helm was lifted to unveil Death’s bloody face. The two opponents smiled and embraced, walking off the bridge arm in arm.

After that it was a fast changing montage of battles and celebrations. Always, it was Death at that bright king’s side, fighting his battles and cheering his spirits. It was a side of her ancient enemy that Cassandra had never seen. Always with Kronos, Death had been on guard, but with this king – he laughed…all the time. He played, he protected and he loved. It was there all over him, every time he looked at his bright lord.

A night sometime later. The king’s private chamber. That same blond man, dressed in king’s brocade, animatedly talking as he bent over a map unrolled on a table before the hearth, pointing something out to Death, who watched the king with a longing and intensity that only one as innocent as Duncan could fail to see. If Cassandra hadn’t hated him so, her heart would have ached for the man’s impossible situation.

Another night saw the pair sharing a laugh in a shadowed castle hall. As their gazes touched, the smiles died. The king reached out to touch his champion’s chest as he leaned in to claim those thin, berry-red lips. For a stolen moment, the sheerest of ecstasies showed on both their faces, then the champion stumbled back and whispered, “No, this will destroy you.”

The king’s plea of “I don’t care!” was rife with desperation.

But Death held firm, with a choked out, “I do. I will not be your downfall. Don’t put that on me.”

Need obviously overcoming sense, the king argued, “I could order it.”

Where there should have been outrage or even fear, the champion merely gave a sad smile and shook his head, the softness of the caress those long fingers couldn’t resist giving his king’s bearded face seeming to belie his rejection. “No, one such as you would never order that. And that is why my answer is and must always be no. Good night, my lord.”

And the king was left standing at the top of the castle stairs with such an expression of suppressed longing on his wide, troubled face that a blind man could have read it as he let his champion walk away. Cassandra observed how the king watched his gray haired mentor and champion meet at the foot of the stairs in another of the mysterious exchanges that would never be explained, how the king saw, but didn’t hear, the harsh words that passed between his two closest friends. His champion shook his head in a clear no and stormed off, his mentor shaking his head afterwards in exacerbation that was just as obvious, then moving up to join him.

Then the wheel turned again. Cassandra saw a parade of stunning women pass through that bright king’s bed, but ever his eyes were unsatisfied, empty until he saw his champion again. She looked to see how Death comported himself during that period, whose flesh her ancient enemy purged his unrequited love upon…and found the man walking the night like one of the undead, his bed empty, his mind absorbed with books or work.

Years seemed to pass that way. The king’s brightness dimmed as he entered what had to be his fourth decade. The question of an heir became a pressing issue to all but the king and his champion. Both seemed, if not content, then at least resigned to dwell in that half-life of unending longing.

And it was then that the change occurred. A golden-curled girl, barely fifteen years of age, entered the picture. Cassandra saw how smitten the king was with her youthful innocence and shy intelligence as she sat at her father’s side at banquet, and she saw as well how flattered, but disinterested, the girl was in this suitor who was older than her father. But, as with all things in that age, the men made their arrangements, and her innocence was sold for a title and land ‘queath. The king would have his heir, the kingdom a queen, and all would be well with the world, save for the child that was asked to sell her happiness away.

The date was set. Cassandra watched the young girl fret and cry until she was packed off to her fate…escorted there by her bridegroom’s champion. The spark that had been so horribly lacking from her meetings with her betrothed was there from the first as her gray eyes met Death’s hazel. Cassandra held her breath, waiting for the inevitable, but…Death did not disgrace the infatuated girl. Instead, he stopped her fretting and made her laugh with stories of her future husband, every word fanning that initial spark higher.

The wedding passed in a bright blur of joy and laughter, save for all but the king’s champion, who tried to smile, but who only managed to look lost. Time passed. The marriage bed was not happy, but tolerable, a fact to which the king seemed blind. And always, there was his champion there, making both king and young bride laugh where otherwise there would have been empty silence. That spark between gray eyes and hazel grew stronger, while that between blue and hazel began its inevitable dimming. Time and again after that on the wheel’s turning, Cassandra would see Death come to his lord and lady to beg his leave…and be ever refused. Titles and land were granted, where only honorable release was sought.

Why Death didn’t leave then, Cassandra couldn’t say. It was clear why his lord wanted him around. The king’s need for protection was real. His kingdom won, he now had the difficult task of maintaining it. Loyal followers such as his champion were few and far between. That Death would be that champion, she still couldn’t fathom, any more than she could comprehend why Death remained to torture himself, for Cassandra could see how impossible it was for Methos, torn between two loves, either of which would damn him.

As happened in all such cycles, bad went to worse. A spear thrust in battle ended all hopes for an heir. Cassandra watched wide-eyes as Death and the king’s Druid fought back the grim reaper, saving the man, but not his spirit. The castle was never the same after that. Laughter was almost anathema. And the king’s marriage bed…what had been tolerable to a frightened girl became impossible for the disenchanted woman she’d become. And still that spark was ever there between gray eyes and hazel, still the king refused his champion’s pleas for release…until the wheel spun again and the final ingredients for disaster were added to the mix.

The bastard heir, begotten off a union in a bed where neither king nor man had the right to be, arrived at court with his mother, the king’s sister. Cassandra watched the scandal rock the Court, wincing in sympathy as the young queen’s barrenness became the talk of the day. As the king warmed to his son, his heart grew cool to the bride who had failed to give him a rightful heir. His queen drifted further and further away in the coldness, until the day when the spark in those hazel eyes flashed to fire at her plight, and she finally found the warmth she had searched for all her lonely days as a trophy queen.

Though she hated him, Cassandra winced when the wheel revealed the inevitable discovery on that stormy afternoon when the queen’s bedroom door flew open to reveal an even greater storm in her husband’s face. Just whom the king was jealous of at that point, Cassandra had trouble discerning, for he seemed as distressed over his champion’s infidelity as his wife’s.

Cassandra listened as the accusations flew, amazed to hear Death as the voice of reason through it all, but the world wanted naught of reason in those dark days. It was fully acceptable for a man to buy a woman from her father for a few leagues of land, but should that woman seek her happiness elsewhere, it was a sin punishable by death. And the king was betrayed enough to want that punishment. Stunned, Cassandra watched the man she thought of as rapist and murderer risk his life to free his lover from the castle dungeons, she stood by the broken king as he watched the pair flee into the night, the white-haired Druid at his side advising leniency.

The rest was almost too hard to watch. Villainy piled upon villainy, betrayal upon betrayal, until the bright boy she’d observed from childhood was fighting for his life against men who had once sworn fealty to him, against a son he would have given the world to, had the boy only waited. And there on that bleak battlefield, when all was lost, Fate turned her wheel again. A battalion of avenging angels fell upon the bastard’s host, driving them back. The fallen king looked up through blood drenched eyes at a vision of his champion, looking as young and as mighty as he’d been the day he’d sworn himself to the king’s service.

Cassandra watched Death fight with a berserker frenzy, driving the king’s attackers off, pounding them until all lay dead. Evil was defeated that day and the right restored, but at what cost, for the bright king who could never be replaced lay dead and all they’d built lay broken around them.

It was almost with pity that Cassandra watched the weeping champion hold the dead king to his breast as he’d never been able to do in life.

Realizing that her vision should have broken off when Duncan’s perspective ended with the king’s death, Cassandra stared around the blood soaked field, wondering why she was still here.

A cold shiver passed through her as she saw the only other figure still standing on the misty battlefield, another specter from the future. Only, this visitor was as non-present in his actual reality as he was sightseeing in the past. Duncan MacLeod stood there in the distance, his plain white shirt, blue jeans and long black coat as out of place here as they would have been in the Scotland of his boyhood.

Turning her back on her grief-stricken enemy, she made her way through the corpses to where MacLeod stood. His gaze was fixed on Methos. She’d never seen such…despair in Duncan’s handsome face. It was gray with loss. He looked like he’d lost everything that mattered to him. There was nothing of that beautiful, idealistic child he’d been left...and Cassandra’s heart ached for that loss.

“Hello, Duncan,” she uncertainly greeted the fog-swept Highlander, not sure if he’d be any more aware of her than he was back in the abbey.

Mac surprised her. He glanced her way. Seeming neither startled nor curious about her presence, MacLeod responded, “Cassandra.” Not cold, not warm, simply an acknowledgement.

“What are you doing here, Duncan?” she asked.

His gaze turned back to where Methos was still loudly weeping over his fallen comrade.

“Searching,” was all Duncan said, his eyes turning back to Death as though being pulled against their will. Cassandra wasn’t sure if it was just an effect of the mists twirling around him, but Mac seemed more insubstantial, almost as though he were fading with the mists.

“For?”

“We never get it right,” he answered in a voice so gruff that she could barely understand him. Through the swirling gray fog, she could see the tears standing clearly in his eyes and then….

And then the scene snapped around her and Cassandra found herself back in the abbey’s garden, kneeling in the wet, dead grass before Duncan’s still figure.

“Duncan? Duncan!” she’d had him, for a moment, conscious, if not corporeal.

Burdened by the sights she’d seen, Cassandra rose shakily to her feet.

“Come, Duncan, let’s go inside and have some tea,” she said, falling into Methos’ practice of talking to MacLeod as though he were all right. Guiding him to his feet, she led him back to the cottage.

To her surprise, Death did not meet them at the door. So, Cassandra took MacLeod’s coat off him and put it on the rack. Before she could guide him any further into the house, Mac startled her by turning on his heel and leaving her. She followed bewilderedly behind, until the bathroom door closed in her face.

“He does that,” a somewhat ironical voice observed from the kitchen to her right. “It can be fairly disconcerting the first few times. Don’t worry, I’ll collect him in five or ten minutes.”

“He doesn’t come back?” Cassandra couldn’t help but question, looking over to where Death was sitting at the kitchen table.

“Not on his own. Tea?” Methos offered, lifting a brown betty her way.

Yesterday, pride would have had her denying the offer on general principle, but her spirit journey had left her a little too fugued to worry about formalities. Besides, she had some questions she needed answered. Though she was fairly certain that what she’d plugged into was a true memory and not a fantasy, Death was the most unlikely Lancelot candidate that she could have cast.

She saw his shock when she nodded her head in assent and moved to the furthest end of the table to sit down.

He didn’t have just tea ready. There was a platter of sandwiches on the table that he wordlessly pushed her way. Famished as she always was after spirit work, Cassandra couldn’t resist digging into one. His silence while she grounded herself in the here and now seemed to confirm his claims of having apprenticed with an adept in the arts. The cheeses, meats, breads and fruit he’d laid out were exactly the type of food one craved after working with the Mystery.

While she ate, she kept her eyes on her food. Though, to give him credit, she couldn’t feel him staring at her. He seemed just as uncomfortable with being thrust together as she was.

When she’d eaten her fill, she took a sip of the tea before her and finally looked his way.

As though sensing her attention, his tired gaze moved to her, hesitantly, as though expecting an explosion.

After a moment’s uncomfortable silence, Methos courteously inquired, “How’d it go today?”

“It went,” Cassandra snapped. As his eyes shied away, she cursed herself. She needed his help now. She wasn’t going to get it by savaging the man. “Actually, there’s something I need to ask you.”

“Yes?” she could see how difficult it was for the exhausted man to force himself to meet her gaze again. He actually seemed to be more ill at ease and pained by her presence than she was to be here.

“Absurd as this may sound…is there any chance you were Lancelot?” she could barely voice the question with a straight face.

His reaction was extreme and unexpected. The events they were referring to had happened over sixteen-hundred years ago, yet every drop of color drained from his already pallid face as though she’d reopened a recent wound.

She could see the defensive barriers snapping up around him as Methos quietly and blatantly evaded, “Sorry, that’s not a name I’ve ever used.”

Her own nerves pressed to the limit at attempting to hold rational discourse with this rapist, she countered, “Don’t argue semantics with me. It’s Duncan’s sanity you’re gambling with. Were you or were you not Arthur’s champion?”

Her accusation seemed to cut his already wobbly legs out from under him. And, seeing what she’d just seen in Duncan’s mind, she felt almost ashamed for forcing the issue as he answered in an almost broken voice, “His name was Artos. He was…the finest king who ever ruled and one of the greatest men I ever met.”

“He was Duncan MacLeod,” Cassandra softly informed.

His wide, red-ribboned gaze popped to her face, scouring for truth. “What?”

“I spent the afternoon watching a mental film of his life. Duncan had cast himself in the role of king. You were his champion and confidant. There was too much reality there for it to be fantasy.” Cassandra wasn’t sure what reaction she was expecting, but the pain her words sliced into those already over-burdened features made her regret ever bringing it up. While it was true that Death was the most hated enemy she would ever have; it was equally true that there were some things that she was simply not allowed to do as a healer. There were levels of cruelty that would forever expel her from her Lady’s favor, and she recognized that she was approaching those limits here, however unintentionally.

“That’s three times I’ve damned him then,” Methos said almost to himself.

“What?” Cassandra asked, liking neither the despondent tone nor Methos’ strained expression.

“He’s given me his heart in three realities, and in all three, I’ve led him to his destruction. Heal him, lady, if you can. Heal him and take my head.”

He was up and leaving the table before she’d unraveled his words. She’d thought he would storm to his room, but instead, he went into the bathroom.

There was silence for a long time, and then she could hear him talking again, though she couldn’t distinguish the muffled words. They were soft, laden with that infinite patience he seemed to have for Duncan. The toilet flushed and the door reopened.

As he led MacLeod from the bathroom, she looked into the ragged face of this stranger she named Death.

He met her gaze with a vulnerability he seemed unable to mask, for all that she could see his pride was insisting that he remain outwardly unperturbed after his earlier outburst. She could almost see him waiting for her to tear into him, and yesterday she would have done it without pause or qualm, but she still had the image in her mind of this man holding a bloody corpse on a battlefield. It just wasn’t in her to torment someone who was obviously already in Hell.

“Methos?”

She saw his Adam's apple bob as he gulped and straightened, visibly preparing for an attack he obviously hadn’t the strength to withstand. “Yes?”

“Why don’t you let me take Duncan down to the hot springs for his soak today while you get some rest?” Cassandra suggested as blasé as possible.

His gaze narrowed in an all too familiar suspicion. His exhausted features revealed how hard he was working to unravel the hidden purpose of her offer, for it was clear that it was beyond his ability to accept that she had his best interests at heart. Finally, he seemed to give up on the mental effort and offered a confused sounding, “Thanks, but I’ll manage.”

“You’ll be of no help to Duncan if you fall flat on your face,” she argued. “Go rest.”

“There isn’t any rest, Cassandra. There are only regrets,” Methos countered, but he gave her a small smile that, while shy, was genuine. Then he took Duncan’s arm and led the Highlander through the door that led down to the hot springs below.

Sighing, because she couldn’t understand why she should care if he were unwell, Cassandra finished her lunch and went off to her own room to reclaim her strength.

**********************

In the days that were to follow, she would learn the truth of Methos’ words. She didn’t know what he did at night when he retired with Duncan to their room, but it wasn’t resting. The man looked as though he never slept, but he made sure Duncan did; the same way he made certain that the Highlander ate while his own meals went mostly untouched. Cassandra came to realize that the only thing that was giving her former enemy the energy to remain conscious and on his feet was the power he exchanged with Duncan during their daily sharing of the Forging. Though Cassandra never eavesdropped, either physically or psychically, it was impossible for a healer of her sensitivity to miss that level of energy exchange when it was happening on the other side of the wall.

Her worries about Death molesting the oblivious Highlander vanished, because, as much as she wanted to think badly of Methos, nothing she saw in her daily exposure to him would allow her to believe he’d do anything to endanger Duncan. The man was just too…devoted. She’d never seen anybody with the patience and perseverance Methos exhibited when dealing with Mac. Also, the time MacLeod and Methos spent alone in their bedroom in the afternoons seemed to replenish Mac’s strength on a daily basis. So, she kept her council about what went on in the next room, and, although Methos watched her every day afterwards as though awaiting censure, Cassandra let it pass.

Truth be told, she didn’t have the energy to confront Methos. The work she did with Duncan was intense, of a type she hadn’t had opportunity to practice for centuries. Christianity had branded her a witch, deviate and Satan worshipper. It was the rare mortal who ventured to her cottage at all these days. And while she would never forget the arts she had spent millennia mastering, employing them so intensely after such a long hiatus drained her utterly. And…there was something inside her that would not allow her to taunt someone who saw to her creature comforts so discretely.

This last bothered her as much as it would have angered her when she’d arrived two weeks ago. She’d told Methos repeatedly that she was perfectly capable of looking after herself, and, yet, every morning breakfast was there waiting for her. When she came in after her session with Duncan, a hearty lunch would be on the table, and the same with dinner. She was honestly too distracted to make an issue of it, so she’d taken to just eating whatever he put out for her. But….

It made the hating hard. She was a healer. It wasn’t her nature to kill, but she’d sworn upon her people’s bones and her ravaged virginity that she would avenge them.

Just as Longford had.

That thought echoed more and more through her thoughts these days when she saw the bleak misery the Macedonian’s revenge had wrought. Her beautiful Duncan was off languishing somewhere in the spirit world, searching for Lady knew what, while Methos….

Methos’ suffering shouldn’t matter, she told herself. Whatever he got, he deserved. That went without saying, and, yet….

Had she planned to hurt him in the worst way possible, she couldn’t have done so more effectively than what Longford had done. There was no hope left in her ancient enemy. Cassandra no longer feared that Methos would run out on their bargain once Mac was healed, for she could sense that the man was almost eager to see a surcease of his sorrow, accepting death as the only escape option left to him.

Cassandra vented a deep sigh and pushed the troubling thought from her mind and heart. She was supposed to be focusing herself for another journey into MacLeod’s time-traveling psyche. Every day, she had a different life play out before her. Most times the people were strangers, but always for a few seconds after the persona he’d played in that timeframe would die, she’d see Mac’s ghost standing there in the background watching. Sometimes she’d get a word or two from him, but most times he fled from her like a will-o-the-wisp.

This afternoon, Mac’s roving spirit had brought them back to another castle. At first she thought she was back at Camelard, but a glance out the window showed her quite a different landscape than the harsh Welsh coastline.

She looked around the chamber she found herself in with interest, smiling at the young boy asleep in his canopied bed, glowing golden in the light from the lit candelabra on his night table. At perhaps six or eight years of age, he was an angel. Touseled blond curls, perfect peaches and cream skin, an innocence so pronounced it was almost palpable…no one could look at the sleeping child without responding to it.

Cassandra noted the empty pallet beside his bed, where normally his nurse would have slept. Concern crept through her, for the wind was high. The open casement on the other side of the bed was making the drapes at the top of the child’s canopied bed billow out, dangerously close to the lit candles.

Were this her own age, Cassandra would have offered up a song to calm the wind or douse the candles, but as a spectator to the ancient past, she was powerless to help in any way. As she’d feared, the drapes ignited. The golden flames snaked up the bed’s curtains almost too fast to be seen. The wood on the top of four-poster bed caught with a rush of sound, and still the child slept on.

It was only as the wood began to groan around him as it burned that the noise or smoke finally woke the boy. Coughing, he rose with a scream, lifting his left hand to protect his face as his bed came crashing down around him.

The wheel turned again and Cassandra saw that same boy older, horribly disfigured. Her heart bled for him as she watched him bravely try to interact with those around him, people who could hardly gaze on his face without shuddering. As the wheel continued to turn, she recognized Mac’s courage and fortitude in the lonely youngster. Virtually friendless, the boy spent his days haunting the keep. Finally out of pity, the priest taught the young lord to read the Bible, the only book in the castle.

The years crawled by with painful slowness for the youth, and then everything changed all at once, as so often happened.

Cassandra sighed as the wheel showed her the tall, dark haired stranger who entered the lord’s service to keep his accounts straight. This Methos had little in common with Artos’ handsome champion. He was quiet and reserved, completely unassuming. Looking at him, there was almost a wounded air about him, Cassandra thought.

The trunk of books he brought with him attracted the disfigured youth like honey would flies.

Cassandra had been prepared to see Methos either indulge the young man with the pandering civility most of the lord’s retainers accorded the scarred heir or dismiss him completely as Death would have done. The boy’s father was barely better than any of the others when it came to handling the disfigurement, so there wouldn’t have been any grave repercussions should Methos have shrugged the young man off.

To her surprise, Methos did neither. Almost ashamed by the assumption she’d made, Cassandra watched the gentleness with which Methos treated the boy. As the wheel of the stars turned, she saw the young man’s gratitude grow into friendship and his lips turn upwards in laughter. When he smiled at Methos, his whole being lit up, the web work of livid red scars that made up the entire left side of his face seeming less noticeable.

She saw how at Methos’ urging, the young man began to join in more of the keep’s social functions. Michél, for so the young lord was named, no longer left the feasts as soon as he finished eating or hid in corners to remain unnoticed. He stayed at his father’s table, chatted with his peers, while doing his best to ignore the fact that no one else seemed able to forget his scars…except Methos, who hardly seemed aware of them. But the others…they made Michél’s life as difficult as possible.

Cassandra observed one such heart-breaking incident at a time when Methos had been at the keep for perhaps five years. Michél had grown from a gawky teenager to a quiet young man during that time. This particular day, a group of Michél’s kinsmen were planning a hunt. Cassandra’s heart grew sad to see how the other youths all found reasons to cancel their plans when Michél made to join them. Methos’ young friend took it well, until he saw the group ride out the postern gate with their hunting hounds later that day. He was still standing there staring as the last of them made their way out when Methos approached behind him.

The compassion and understanding that softened that hated face no longer stunned Cassandra, who was beginning to see a different Methos than the one memory painted. Her ancient enemy led the scarred youth away from the keep, into the out-lying woods that fringed the castle.

Michél said nothing as they walked under the autumn canopies for a long time with dry leaves crunching loud underfoot. Finally, he sighed and joked, “I like it out here. Perhaps I should bide here with the other beasts.”

It was Methos’ voice that was bitter as he replied, “You’re not a beast, my young lord. Their cruelty paints them as such.”

“How many times need I ask you to call me Michél?” the young man protested, before continuing with, “It isn’t their fault my face is too horrible for men to gaze upon.”

“Your face is a face, Michél, no more horrible than any man’s,” Methos countered in the gentle tone Cassandra had grown used to hearing him employ with Duncan.

“How can you say that? I know what I look like…”

“So do I, my lord. This keep is a tiny corner of the world-”

“Are you telling me there’s someplace this wouldn’t matter? Tell me, Adam, in all your travels, have you found a land of blind men, for it is only in such a place that I will find welcome,” Michél declared.

“I am living in a land of the blind,” Methos answered. “A man is not measured by his comeliness-”

“In God’s eyes, perhaps, but what creature of flesh and blood would want to gaze upon this for eternity?” Michél’s scarred hand gestured towards his even more damaged face. “Would you?”

The young lord hung his head when he received no immediate reply, but Cassandra saw what the mortal missed, the shocked epiphany that Methos was experiencing.

“See, your honesty will not allow you to lie,” Michél noted in a voice that held no accusation, only resignation.

“Michél,” Methos seemed to weigh each word before voicing it, “in another time, I would show you your worth. There is a great deal of ignorance in this world. Those same men who scorn you would pass by a diamond or ruby in its natural state, because it didn’t glitter straight off to their liking. But there will always be those who know a diamond when they see it.”

“You…you liken me to a jewel?” Michél asked hesitantly, something in his attitude suggesting that he feared he was being mocked.

This ancient Immortal, who’d had a glib tongue before the language he was currently speaking had even been born, appeared speechless. Methos’ gaze dropped almost guiltily from the young mortal. Still, he gave a sharp nod of assent.

Michél’s confusion was obvious to Cassandra. The youth hadn’t the experience to recognize the heavy sexual undercurrents that were making the air around them tingle like it would before a summer storm, but he was apparently sensitive enough to know that something wasn’t right between them.

They walked on through the trees…and the wheel turned.

She next saw them on a humid summer evening when the keep was sweltering like a sauna. Cassandra recognized the well-appointed room as the one in which Michél’s bed had burned. Methos and his lord’s son sat across from each other at a small table, a chessboard between them. Both men were stripped down to the least amount of clothing possible, wearing only their hose and loose white linen shirts. Michél’s hair was its usual tumble of wild blond curls. Methos’ longer length was held back by a leather strip, save where the intense humidity made it stand straight up in places on the top.

“Louisa wanted you to accompany her to her room tonight,” Michél remarked, staring at the chest bared by the older man’s open shirt with innocent hunger. Seeing the intensity of that want, Cassandra didn’t know how Methos bore it. It was clear the youth was oblivious to his true desires. “What are you doing here with me?”

“We had plans,” Methos reminded, as though it were perfectly normal for a man to forego the pleasures of a woman’s boudoir for the chance to sweat away a hot night over a chessboard. “You wouldn’t have been so rude as to ignore a prior commitment – would you, Michél?”

“I wouldn’t have that problem. Louisa wouldn’t want me to accompany her to her room,” Michél dismissed the thought with a smile as though it were unthinkable.

“And if she had?” Methos asked with a strange intensity that made Cassandra shiver to watch it. She couldn’t imagine what it felt like to have it focused upon her. Stunned, she realized that he was flirting with the youth, not in any overt manner that would frighten the Christian lad, but with a subtle, sensual flair that would get the younger man’s heart pounding all the same.

Surprised, she saw Michél hold that deep gaze. “I would still bide here.”

It was Methos who gulped and took another sip of wine from his silver goblet. He held the cool, condensation-beaded metal flagon to his forehead as if to cool himself down.

Cassandra studied him, surprised by how affected he was by this unfortunate youth. She could understand his kindness to the young lord, for hurting Michél would have been equitable to kicking a puppy, but Methos’ obvious desire for the disfigured man was puzzling. Death had always had the most beautiful women and young men in his tent. Someone like Michél would have been put to the blade back then. But here Methos was, aching to be intimate with the youth. It made no sense.

“Do you remember that day of the hunt when Albert and Claude left me behind last fall?” Michél said after a long silence. The sweat dotting his brow no doubt caused by more than the heat right now.

Methos nodded, the gaze he turned on Michél almost wary.

“What did you mean when you said that if this were another time you’d show me my worth?” the mortal asked.

Michél was perhaps not so oblivious, after all, Cassandra decided. She waited for the lie that must come from Methos now to avert catastrophe. This was not an age when men admitted to such tendencies, even with the closest of friends - perhaps especially not with the closest of friends.

But Methos didn’t dissemble. How great his loneliness must have been, she thought, as she saw him hold his companion’s gaze and softly declare, “You are not a child anymore, Michél. You know what I meant.”

Methos looked down at the game board between them and moved his knight. He seemed content to allow the topic to drop once again, as she sensed he had on many a night in the past. Even so, she could see the tension in his too-still form. He was coiled over that chess set like he was prepared to flee at a moment’s notice, and well he should be, for if the conversation went awry, the accusation that would be leveled against him would be enough to get him burned alive.

Once again, he’d surprised her. When she’d first seen this scenario developing, Cassandra had suspected how it would play out. The boy scarred and vulnerable, Methos, a skilled manipulator…she would have wagered anything that her ancient enemy would have taken advantage of a comfort situation and plunged this isolated youth into a state of sexual excitement in which there would be no choice, only surrender. But that wasn’t what Methos was doing at all. For whatever reason, he was holding back, allowing the youth to pursue him in this torturously slow, incredibly bumbling manner.

The silence felt like it would stretch into eternity.

At last Michél asked, “Do you believe in Hell, Adam?”

“Man makes his Hells with his cruelties, for himself and others,” this man who had created more horrors than could possibly be remembered replied.

Michél’s gaze swept down to the chessboard before rising again to Methos’ face. “Why should you want to…waste your time with me? To turn down a woman as charming as Louisa…and she’s not the first. I’ve seen you refuse other beautiful women….”

“Perhaps I don’t find them all that charming or beautiful,” Methos replied, and then warned, “And if you lower that chess piece, you will be placing yourself in check.”

Michél hastily pulled back his bishop. His mind was obviously anywhere but on their game, his gaze, like Cassandra’s, was fixed on the huge droplet of perspiration that was slipping slowly down Methos’ elegant neck into the light dusting of chest hair just visible through his open shirt. Ripping his eyes away, the young man continued, “Louisa is the loveliest woman in this keep. What could you possibly find displeasing about her?”

Methos was quiet a moment before answering, “I no longer find cruelty an appealing trait in bedmates.”

The youth blinked at that, obviously perceptive enough to understand what Methos was saying about his past as well as his present. “What cruelties do you speak of? I have never seen any of the ladies you’ve…ignored offer you so much as a single unkind word.”

“And I have never heard one of them offer you a kind one,” Methos replied.

Michél dropped his chess piece on the board, his shock obvious. “You scorn them on my account?”

“No man is immune to misfortune, Michél. If they can treat the bravest, fairest man in this keep so cruelly because of a twist of fate, why should I expect them to be any kinder to me should disaster befall me?” Methos challenged.

It was clear that the young man wasn’t used to compliments. Methos’ words hit him hard. Michél swallowed loudly and then asked in a choked off voice, “You think me…brave? Why?”

Even Cassandra found her throat tightening with emotion. She could see Methos undergoing a similar problem.

Finally, Methos replied, “Because I know your goodness and character. You treat all you meet with courtesy, both noble and lowborn. And…I saw how you intervened last year when Albert was beating that servant.”

Michél’s uninjured cheek turned nearly as red as his scarred one as he tried to shrug the incident off with, “It wasn’t the poor lad’s fault Albert spilt the wine on his new doublet.”

“True, but there were fifteen other men present, and not a one of them saw fit to speak up for the boy. You stood one against five that day,” Methos said.

“Two against five,” Michél reminded. “You joined me and stood fast at my side.”

“You could have handled it fine on your own. You didn’t need me there,” Methos demurred, swapping the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand. The room was as steamy as the emotions between them.

An uncomfortable pause followed. Michél broke it with a barely audible, “I have always needed you by my side. I…always will.”

“I will be there, my lord,” Methos softly affirmed, his sweat-beaded face a strange mix of resolution and yearning.

“No my lords, not tonight,” Michél said.

The boy was very much like a young Duncan MacLeod, she realized, watching as he steeled his nerves to bring a topic out into the open that he’d been warned all his life would bring him nothing but a grisly death and damnation.

“Adam?”

“Yes?” Methos answered, his eyes glittering like emeralds in the flickering candlelight.

Michél opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it again. The direct approach obviously too much for him, he swallowed and hesitantly said, “If you are warm, it would not offend me if you were to remove your shirt.”

“I am very warm,” Methos responded. Standing up, he shouldered out of his loose shirt. His mostly hairless, well-formed chest glowed in the candlelight with a sheen of sweat.

Methos just stood there, allowing the younger man to look his full.

Cassandra heard the swallow Michél gave from her vantage point across the room as Methos’ genitals swelled in size under the intense observation.

“Would-would you be cooler with your hair unbound?” Michél questioned.

Without a word, Methos lifted his hands to the back of his head and undid the leather strip there. The long length came tumbling over his pale shoulders in a silent cascade.

And still the young man made no move to touch.

Finally, Methos cleared his throat and softly said, “I am not made of stone, Michél. If this is but a game to you….”

“No…no game. I…. Would it…offend you if I…touched you?”

Methos gulped and gave a slow shake of his head. He stood totally still while the younger man approached him.

Michél reached a tentative hand out to stroke the soft dusting of dark hair between Methos’ breasts. The older man gasped in a breath at that first touch.

“This pleases you?” Michél asked with heart-rending concern as he fingered the growing bud of a nipple.

You please me,” Methos corrected.

“May I…?” Michél’s nerve apparently failed him.

Drawing a deep breath that expanded his bare chest to impressive proportions, Methos softly informed, “You may do as you please with me…anything you want.”

“Anything?” Michél gruffly echoed, running a flat palm down Methos’ rack of abdominal muscles.

Methos gave a slow, sexy nod of agreement.

The novice’s hand slipped lower, skimming down Methos’ concave belly, over his waistband, moving till he cupped Methos’ hose-covered crotch. The groan Methos gave was deep and low, so familiar it made Cassandra shudder. How often had she serviced him and heard exactly that sound?

The youth’s trembling hands bared Methos’ steamy erection to the humid night air, peeling his hose down to his knees. Cassandra saw how Michél eagerly stroked the back of Methos’ thighs on the way back up, as though he were incapable of resisting touching any part of the other man. Taking that huge cock in his fist, Michél pumped it with growing confidence. Both men stared down at what Michél was working on between them, Methos’ breathing becoming harsher and more erratic. As the pleasure mounted, Methos’ face contorted, his hands jumping to Michél’s shoulders to help hold him up.

And then it was over in a pulsing gush that splattered Michél’s hands and Methos’ stomach.

They stood there frozen together for the longest time, as though neither wanted to be the first to move.

Finally, Michél asked in the most uncertain tone Cassandra could ever recall hearing, “Was that…all right?”

“Oh, Michél,” Methos sighed, “that was far more than all right.”

Methos’ right hand reached up to card his fingers through his companion’s curls. When the younger man made no further moves, Methos softly asked, “But what of you?”

“What?” When he blinked and opened his eyes wide like that, Michél looked all of twelve. His expression made it clear that he’d thought the night over.

“What can I do to please you, my friend?”

Cassandra was beginning to see that this gentleness was far more a prevalent character trait of Methos’ than any of Death’s habits.

“You…you don’t have to do anything. Before, that was enough. I – I know how hard it is for people to even look upon me up close, let alone…touch,” Michél whispered, his gaze locked on the stone floor at their feet.

Methos ran his index finger slowly down the left side of Michél’s face, across the worst of the scars. The younger man gasped, his eyes squeezing tightly shut as the finger trailed down the side of his neck.

“While I love the sound of your voice and could listen to it for hours, I’d prefer not to hear you mouth such foolishness. Gazing upon you is one of my heart’s delights. As for touching you…who could resist this softness, this strength? Have I your permission to touch freely, fair Michél?” Methos asked with only the slightest catch in his voice.

Cassandra could see from where she stood how violently the scarred youth was shaking as he gave a tight, affirmative nod of his head.

Methos leaned in closer, rubbed his cheek against Michél’s damaged one, and whispered into his curl-obscured ear, “Thank you, mon coeur. Fear not. I’ll bring you no harm.”

Then he took the younger man’s mouth for the very first time and the pair melted together.

And the wheel turned. Cassandra could barely credit that this tender lover who coaxed his self-conscious companion into the joyous celebration of his manhood was the same plunderer who’d destroyed her entire world. She watched their love grow into the kind of union everyone longed for, but so few rarely attained. Methos had spoken true: he knew a diamond when he saw it; he was fully capable of cherishing it and polishing it till it shone. And shine Michél did.

She couldn’t help but like Methos for the changes he made in that sad and lonely young man’s view of himself and the world.

When the end came with a crash of the door while the pair lay in love one night and the beautiful child she’d watched grow to maturity ended up skewered on the end of a pike, she almost pulled back into her own time at the horror of it. What was done to Methos afterwards hurt nearly as much. She’d never thought she could feel pity for the devil, but…the tears she shed at that ghastly castration were as much for her ancient enemy as for the love he’d lost.

Methos’ agonized shriek as he was mutilated was still ringing through the chamber when Cassandra caught sight of Duncan MacLeod’s ghostly figure lingering within the door. Turning her back on the brutal drama still being enacted behind her, she crossed to where Mac stood, placing herself between the Highlander and the view of Methos, who had passed out on the stone floor now and was lying there in a pool of blood beside his dead lover and cooling testicles.

“We were happiest here,” Mac said to her. “We almost got it right that time. I…keep coming back here again and again, but no matter how hard I try, it always ends the same way.”

“And so it must, Duncan,” she said gently. “The past is beyond our ability to change.”

“What are you doing here, Cassandra?” MacLeod softly asked, tears standing out bright in his eyes as he watched the cruelties her slender form wasn’t completely able to conceal.

“Looking for you. You’ve been lost a long time.”

“I’m not lost,” he insisted.

“No?” Cassandra quizzed, not taking issue with him, but allowing her skepticism to show.

“I’m…”

“Searching, I know,” Cassandra finished. “Do you even know for what?”

“Not what,” Mac answered. “Who. I’ve found him twice. Each time…”

“Methos?” she gasped. “You’re searching for Methos?”

“I know you hate him, but…” MacLeod sighed. “There’s no point arguing this with you.”

“No, Duncan, please! Don’t go!” she begged, quickly adding, “I need your help.”

That stopped him from fleeing, as she’d known it would.

“My help?” he cautiously questioned, it clear that he believed he wasn’t even able to help himself. But he didn’t leave her. For all that they hadn’t parted on good terms, Duncan MacLeod would never be able to turn his back on a friend in need.

“The people who care about you back home are so worried. When you leave me here, I barely find my way back some days. If you were to accompany me--”

“I can’t,” he said, paling.

“Why not?” Cassandra asked, trying to maintain her calm.

“I really am lost back there…trapped. There is only the pain and the dying. I know if I keep searching here, I’ll find a place where we can be together…without death or pain…”

“There is no living in the past, Duncan,” Cassandra gently insisted, recognizing that she’d been guilty of that crime herself for the last three millennia. Seeing that she had his attention, she continued, “And you’re not trapped anymore. Methos found you.”

“Found me? He…couldn’t. No one knows where I am. I’ve been tied up for so long…” MacLeod’s handsome face tensed with anxiety at the suffering that had prompted this spirit walk. She could see him getting ready to bolt again.

“Duncan, I have never lied to you. I swear that you are strong and healed back home. You can’t stay here. There is no happiness for you here, only the memory of lives played out.” She stepped to the side, and pointed to where Methos was lying there sobbing on the cold, gory flagstones behind her as he awoke to the agony of his amputated flesh. “Look at him. This is how it will end every time. If you return to Camelard, it will be the same loss for him all over again, only without the joy of this dance. He is hurting like this at home now, because of you. The only place you have a chance to be happy with him is in your own present. Please, come back with me. If not for yourself, then do it for Methos.”

“Now I know you’re not real,” MacLeod said with a sad, forced smile.

“What? How am I not real?” Cassandra demanded before he could go, knowing this had to be real simply from the degree of exasperation this impossible man was raising in her.

“You want him dead. You’d take Methos’ head with your bare hands, if given the chance. You would never argue for his sake,” Duncan said with perfect logic.

“It’s true. I hated him…possibly stronger than I ever loved,” Cassandra admitted, seeing for the first time how that hatred had held her back in her spirit work. How could she represent the forces of eternal love and nurturing while harboring such a destructive dream? But, this wasn’t about her right now; it was about Duncan. She had to help him back, whatever it took. For, when all was said and done, she recognized that she was as responsible for putting her former lover here as Longford was. She was lucky Methos hadn’t wanted her head when she showed up. He’d have had reason, she realized. But while she had festered in her fantasies of revenge and blood for blood, Methos had changed, for the better, far more than she had. And, she was ashamed, for one of the Lady’s chosen should have behaved better. However, nothing was ever set in stone. Each day was a new beginning, and she had the perfect chance to start anew by setting this wrong she’d done right. So, rallying her spirit, Cassandra swore, “But…I have made my peace with Methos. I don’t want to see him suffer anymore. I swear. All I want is for you to come home to him. It’s been so long. He misses you so. Please, Duncan? You trusted me once when you had no reason when you were but a lad. Trust me again. I promise, I mean neither you nor your love harm.”

Uncertainty shadowed his strong face. For a moment, she was sure she’d lost him, that he’d turn and flee again and she’d be forced to live out another of these tragic histories he was trying to bend to his will again tomorrow. But then, she saw the courage that had been his shining trait take hold…and the trust.

Still visibly hesitant, Duncan gulped and checked, “You swear to me that you are not taking me back to that car trunk? For I swear, I’d rather you take my head, Cassandra.”

“No, Duncan. That’s over. I promise. Methos has brought you home. Please, come see for yourself,” too tired to hope, she held out her hand.

And that amazing spirit of his carried him through. She saw him take a deep breath, then take hold of her.

As soon as he touched her, she closed her fist around his. Holding tight to his spirit, she found the thread that would lead them back and followed it down into herself, dragging him along.

She felt his panic at the moment of parting. Pulling him close on that psychic plain, she kissed him deeply before withdrawing, “You’re safe. Methos waits for you. I promise.”

“Cassandra!” he called as she made to tumble him back into his physical shell.

“Yes?”

“Thank you.”

Smiling, because he would ever be the most perfect of heroes, she kissed his brow and eased him backwards…until he fell into himself and she was standing alone in the tunnel between the world of flesh and spirit. Then, taking a deep breath, she plunged home again, too.

The first thing she heard was a robin singing. She could feel the energies of Beltaine thrumming through the ley lines below her as clearly as she could feel the cold bite of the wind on her face. She opened her eyes to the gray, cloudy day she’d left behind what felt like years ago now.

The only things warm on her were her hands, which were still clasping Duncan’s. Almost afraid, she turned her eyes to the Highlander…and found him gazing in open confusion at the vine covered abbey ruins behind their bench.

“C-Cassandra…?” his voice was thick and harsh with disuse, “…what…how did you…where am I? I was…trapped…”

He was staring wildly about him, on the verge of panic at his abrupt change of state. It was clear Duncan had no memory of what had just passed between them…or what he’d been doing on the spirit plain for the past year or so. His last clear memory was obviously that of his torturous captivity.

It wasn’t an uncommon reaction. Those plains weren’t meant to be walked by the uninitiated. Half of an adept’s training involved learning how to retain the knowledge one learned on other plains of existence.

And, in some ways, that forgetfulness was a blessing. The losses Duncan had lived through belonged where they were – in the distant past. It was bad enough Methos bore those tragic memories, without Duncan suffering them as well.

“You’re safe on holy ground,” she quickly assured him. “Methos is inside waiting for you.”

She gestured towards the white cottage.

“How did I get here…and where are we?” Duncan asked in that same painfully thick voice.

“We’re in an abandoned abbey about twenty miles outside of Clomboux. Methos rescued you from that car trunk over six months ago. You healed physically quite quickly, but…you’ve been suffering a form of mental shock since then,” Cassandra explained, trying not to alarm him too much.

His courage was truly astounding. Though it was clear he was unnerved by everything he was hearing, he kept his head.

“You…healed me?” Mac asked.

“I helped a little,” she demurred. “Methos did the bulk of the work.”

“Methos…” seeming to remember what she’d said about his lover waiting inside the cottage, Duncan’s gaze jumped to the tiny white house. If she’d had any doubts about his feelings for her ancient enemy, they would have been dispelled by the expression on his face at that moment. He’d never looked like that over her…or anyone else he’d been involved with, she’d wager. It was as though the remembered pain of all the unrequited love and longing of those tragic lives he’d lived and lost with Methos was still there in his heart, even if the corporeal reality had purged the memory from his mind. Reminded of his lover, Cassandra could almost feel how he ached to be reunited with Methos again.

Her heart ridiculously gleeful, even though she felt she might drop flat on her face from exhaustion at any moment, Cassandra smiled at Duncan, “Why don’t you go in and see Methos? I know he’d like that.”

Tilting his head to the side, he peered at her out of narrowed eyes for a moment, as though thrown by how calmly she was discussing the man whose very name had sent her into a murderous fury when he’d last seen her. But the call to be with Methos was obviously stronger than his curiosity.

With a slow nod, Mac got to his feet. He stumbled at first, but quickly regained his balance. Moving as though he’d been thrust into someone else’s body, MacLeod walked to the cottage door.

Tears of joy and more moving through her, Cassandra watched him go…and then wept in earnest, in sorrow for the sad lives she’d viewed today, in gratitude for Duncan’s healing…and in thanks for the healing that she could feel moving in her spirit even now. She felt lighter…and freer than she could ever remember. Finally letting go of all that had held her back, she raised a joyful prayer of thanks.

***********************

The earth was moist under his feet as Duncan headed for the cottage, the air cold on his face and scented with sweet mud. He stared at the breathtaking vista of the snow-covered mountains in the distance and looked at the ruins beside him, overwhelmed by the wonder of it all.

It really was like magic. The last thing he remembered when he’d closed his eyes was that stinking trunk and more pain than he’d ever thought possible to experience. His twisted back, the hip he’d been resting on, the wrists bound so tight behind him…they’d all taught him new levels of agony.

But here he stood now, hale and supple. It was a miracle. There was no way around it.

Feeling like he’d had a body transplant, MacLeod looked down at himself. The black coat he was wearing was his own, but it felt terribly loose. And it was frighteningly light. There was no katana in its hidden sheath. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d ventured out in public without it. His sword….

He froze, memory flashing through him. A foggy night. He was on the dock outside his barge, bullets blasting into him, his katana skittering away in the fog, and Ritchie…

Ritchie

Mac pulled in a ragged breath as he remembered the rest: Ritchie rushing to his rescue and dying for his trouble, the Quickening coming to him when that mortal bastard took Ryan’s head…

The world might be bright around him again, but Ritchie would never see it. Ritchie was dead, and he’d profited from the kid’s death.

And now Duncan remembered those endless months of waking only to die of thirst again, how the memory of Ritchie’s death had been there all that time, as harsh a torment as his physical ordeal.

That kid had been like a son to him. What kind of creature fed off its young like that, Duncan pondered, hating himself and his freakish nature as he had at no other time in his life. Ritchie’s entire life had been ahead of him and now…now he was just so much psychic baggage in his teacher’s mind. The unfairness of it all tore into him, as those handcuffs had ripped his flesh.

The worst part was that he still didn’t know what it was all about – why Ritchie had been killed, why he’d been kidnapped, and, most importantly, who had done it.

MacLeod stood there brooding, staring off at the mountains for nearly a half hour. More than anything, he wished for an end to it, an end to the hurting. Would that he could have just died in that trunk, but his nature wouldn’t allow that, either.

He took a deep breath and tried to think, but all there was was sorrow. He could feel Cassandra in the garden behind him and an older, deeper presence waiting in the cottage.

Methos.

The last Duncan remembered, it had been Valentine’s Day and he was going to surprise his friend with that sculpture. Now…the melted snow on the peaks to the west and early wildflowers, whose shoots he could just see coming up beside the garden wall, all declared it to be late April or early May, which meant…

He’d been in that damn trunk for at least two and half months. Somehow, it had seemed longer than that. But he’d hardly been rational for most of that time. The pain alone had been transformative. With the grief added to it…it only stood to reason that his captivity would have felt far longer than it had actually been.

And yet, he’d lost so much weight. The jeans and salmon colored shirt that he could see he had on beneath his baggy coat had been at least two sizes too small for him in February. Now, they hung loose.

It was an unnerving feeling to wake up like this, fully dressed in clothes he had no memory of donning, in a place he had never seen…his first sight that of a person whom he hadn’t been sure wasn’t his enemy.

Cassandra…that she of all people would be here in this holy place with Methos when he awoke was incomprehensible. As he thought of Cassandra, he abruptly remembered what she’d told him when he’d opened his eyes – that Methos had rescued him from his car trunk prison…six months ago!

But…that made even less sense. Everything he knew about nature was telling him it was April or May here in the mountains. Six months ago…that would have made it December or January when he’d been rescued, but…he hadn’t been kidnapped until February…which meant that he’d been incapacitated in that trunk for a hell of a lot longer than two months….

Almost afraid to learn the truth, Duncan moved towards the door. Methos would know what happened. Methos….

His heart quickened at the thought of finally seeing his lover again. How often had he screamed that name in his confinement, hoping against hope that Methos would find him and put an end to his misery? And, now, untold months later, he would at last get to see him again.

He recalled how upset Methos had been in February – was it even just last February, he fretted - after Longford’s challenge. They hadn’t made love for weeks before his abduction. It felt like just yesterday to Duncan on some levels, and, yet, it felt centuries away, like the love they’d found together was as gone as Ritchie Ryan and Tessa, just another of those ephemeral moments of joy that passed before he could hold onto it. There had been so much pain in his life lately that those happy memories of them laughing and loving hardly seemed real anymore. He hardly knew what he’d even say to Methos, but…

The door opened quietly when he turned the knob. Duncan stared at the unfamiliar living room, taking in its cozy furnishings, simple, but very nice. Everything was new to him, and yet, Mac was sure that he’d sat on that velvet couch before. In fact, the furnishings and décor all gave him an uneasy sense of déjà vu.

He closed his eyes, searching. The Immortal signature was coming from ahead of him, to the right, behind that wall.

MacLeod followed the invisible thread through a doorway into a small kitchen and froze, gaping at the man in black jeans and gray Henley who sat there staring listlessly down into a teacup. If he himself were thin, Methos was emaciated. He’d often wondered what his lover would look like with longer hair, but the tight ponytail Methos was sporting only accentuated how terribly bony his face had become.

As if sensing of his presence, Methos started and looked up.

His eyes…Mac dragged in a shocked breath. The bags around those bloodshot eyes were so thick it looked like someone had socked Methos. His features were etched with exhaustion. The man was worn so thin that he looked like he didn’t have any reserves left at all. Mac had never seen anyone look so drained. He’d been concerned about Methos’ emotional state before he’d been kidnapped, but now that worry morphed into true fear. What the hell had happened to Methos?

Just as fast as the question flashed through his mind, its answer followed on its heels. He was what had happened to Methos – his abduction and whatever had been involved in his recovery.

As he watched, Methos forced a smile and greeted him in a tone MacLeod had only heard used in their bed, and then only rarely, when some of the more adventurous acts of their loving pushed him to his limit and Methos thought he needed comforting, “Hello, there. Need the bog – do we?”

“Methos?” he questioned, the strange tone and extreme physical changes in his friend really making him feel as though he’d tumbled down the rabbit hole.

The tea mug dropped unnoticed from Methos’ hand to shatter on the table and spill its contents all over a pile of sandwiches there.

“Mac?” Methos looked like he’d seen a ghost. “My God…MAC!”

And then Methos was on his feet and moving towards him and he was being held tight, so tight he could barely breathe, but when he did…the air had that gloriously familiar, warm scent that was Methos’ alone. It was so good to see him again, to hold him like this, but still, MacLeod felt like there was an invisible wall separating them – and it was inside of him. He felt strangely stiff and closed off, like he was still more dead than alive.

But Methos wasn’t cut off from his emotions. He was alive and sobbing, shaking all over from the shock of him walking in like this without warning, no doubt. MacLeod closed his arms around his friend, and was appalled by the changes. So thin…there was so little of him left.

His hand stroked that long back as he buried his nose in the shaggy ponytail at Methos’ neck and just breathed the man into himself, as Methos clung to him, soaking his neck with hot tears.

A century or two later, Methos drew back far enough to see his face, his long fingers remaining locked in the material on the shoulders of MacLeod’s coat.

“You’re really back – aren’t you? This isn’t a dream?” Methos checked.

Even if it had been, MacLeod wouldn’t have had the heart to tell him so. He knew that Methos was completely unconscious of the tears streaming down his cheeks, but every one of them pierced MacLeod like a dagger as he appreciated what the other man must have been through.

“I’m back,” he affirmed, for it seemed to be what Methos needed to hear most at that moment. He brushed his fingers across a once-regal cheekbone that now stood out like a bruise on Methos’ haggard features. “What have you been doing to yourself? You look awful.”

His purple-bagged eyes still brimming, Methos shook his head and chuckled, sobering as he seemed to become aware of MacLeod still stroking his cheek. His laughter died entirely as their gazes locked.

Mac heard the loud gulp Methos gave, felt the shudder that passed through that too-thin form. The need in those bloodshot eyes was unmistakable. Mac looked for a matching feeling inside himself, but there was only that god-awful pain. Still, knowing he’d hurt Methos if he didn’t respond made him feel worse, so Mac leaned in and kissed those pale lips.

The taste was as he remembered – warm, loving…flavored with milky tea this afternoon. Mac searched for the passion he knew that taste normally inspired…but found only a gaping absence.

Methos’ hands came around him again, digging deep into his hair to hold him tight in place as the older Immortal fused their mouths together. The desperation and hunger penetrated even the rock MacLeod felt himself to be. Methos sagged against him as his legs seemed to go out from under him, and Mac accepted the weight. But still, there was nothing inside him where passion should have been. It was all just too much for him.

But he kissed and held and stroked, because Mac wanted more than anything to be close to this man again.

They both froze as a powerful Immortal signature buzzed around them.

Methos broke free of his mouth with a sigh. “That will be Cassandra.”

Sure enough, she entered the kitchen a moment later. She was wearing the same pale blue gown she’d had on when MacLeod had awoken, though he’d been so shocked that he had barely seen anything but her face at that moment. Now that he was a bit more together, he noticed how its color accentuated the red highlights in her hair and how the gown’s front was stained at the bottom from where she’d been kneeling on the damp ground in the garden.

Mac didn’t know what to expect from her when she saw them embracing like this, but the genuine smile she gave them was not it.

“You found each other, then,” she said, looking pleased, if tired.

MacLeod was totally confused. The last time Cassandra and Methos had been in a room together, she’d left in a fury because MacLeod wouldn’t allow her to take Methos’ head, but here they were, speaking civilly. He could only imagine what it had taken to get them to this point. But he was glad to see it. He didn’t want there to be bad blood between his friends.

“Yes,” Methos answered, his entire body seeming to tense at the sight of her for some reason.

“I’m going to go down to soak in the hot springs for a few hours,” Cassandra said. “I’m totally worn out.”

“Will you, ah…be needing to see me before you go?” Methos asked in a subdued voice, seeming to steel himself.

Mac didn’t know what the hell was going on, but he could feel the raw fear in his friend’s muscles.

Cassandra gave a weary shake of her head. “No, we’ll talk later.”

Methos gave a tight nod. As she turned to enter a door off the kitchen, that Mac guessed led to the basement, Methos called, “Cassandra?”

“Yes?” she paused and came over to the table to help herself to one of the sandwiches that hadn’t been drenched with tea.

“Thank you…for this,” Methos gestured at him, “…and for the time.”

“Time?” for a second, she appeared confused. Then understanding seemed to hit. Looking stricken, Cassandra said, “Methos…” appearing very conscious of his own stare, Cassandra said to Methos, “We will talk later in private. Right now…you are most welcome. Enjoy,” Cassandra said in a tone that MacLeod would have almost called fond had it not been addressed to Methos. Then, before she could clear his bewilderment, she picked up her sandwich and a glass of milk and went through that door.

“You two seem very cozy,” Mac declared, trying to lift the shadows from those eyes with something like a joke, but neither of them were up to it. His voice was still too gruff from disuse for either of them to pretend things were normal yet.

Methos simply breathed out a slow breath and said, “It’s been hard on her, being here with me.”

“And on you?” MacLeod questioned, trying to get a grip on just what had brought Methos to this state of near collapse.

“I got what I deserved,” Methos shrugged and made a visible effort to change the subject, “Are you hungry? Do you want lunch?”

“I want some answers,” MacLeod said somberly, hoping that knowledge of what had occurred would help him shake off the hurt inside him so that he could be happy like he knew he should. He was free again and, if not home, then at least with Methos, which equated to the same thing. It didn’t make any sense that he would still be this…burdened.

“Fair enough,” Methos agreed. “Do you want to talk in the kitchen or…?”

“Do we have a bedroom here?” Mac asked. Cassandra had said she’d be busy for a couple of hours, but he didn’t want any more interruptions. He wanted answers and some time alone with Methos, not necessarily in that order. Though, right now he didn’t want that privacy for the usual reason. All he really wanted was to soak up his lover’s reassuring presence.

Methos’ face became very gentle as he nodded, “Yes, we do. It’s the last door on the right behind you.”

They hadn’t let go of each other yet. Methos didn’t look like he planned on getting out of hugging distance for a millennium or two and, while Mac knew he wasn’t responding inside the way he should be, the closeness wasn’t intrusive. In fact, it felt good, just not as visceral as he thought it should after such an extended separation.

Methos’ right arm was a warm weight on his shoulder as his own left arm wound around that too-slender waist. MacLeod allowed himself to be led to the indicated room. As the door opened and he viewed the bedroom he had no conscious memory of inhabiting, he was struck with that same strange sense of familiarity again. That painting beside the bed, the oil lamp, the rug…all of it felt like something out of a dream.

“Do you want to take that coat off?” Methos asked once the door had closed behind them.

Mac nodded. He moved far enough back from Methos so that he wouldn’t strike him while getting his arm out and eased the overcoat off his shoulders. He tossed it onto a straight back chair in the corner.

When he turned back to his companion, Methos’ gaze was avidly following his every move, an almost amazed expression on his face.

“What is it?” MacLeod asked, a little unnerved by the attention.

“I’m sorry…it’s just so wonderful to see you moving about on your own again,” Methos explained, looking so happy it made Mac feel guilty for asking such a stupid question. Of course, Methos wasn’t able to take his eyes off him. The man had been caring for him up here on this mountain for God knew how long. While it didn’t seem strange to MacLeod himself to be moving and speaking, obviously it was a novelty for his companions.

As he watched, Methos’ recently dried gaze softened, “You’re still feeling out of it – aren’t you?”

He gave a hesitant nod. The last thing he wanted to do was insult or hurt Methos, but the insight in those weary eyes told him that his lover had a fair idea of what was going on inside him.

“Come, sit down on the bed,” Methos suggested. “I think you’re still a bit shocky.”

Mac perched on the edge, running his palm over the cool smoothness of the blue comforter. Textures and colors still seemed to hold an unnatural fascination for him. Realizing what he was doing and feeling his friend watching him, MacLeod looked up and quickly apologized, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me….”

“You spent eight months locked in a car trunk dying again and again of privation,” Methos quietly informed. “You’ve got a right to be a little off your game.”

“It was as long as that?” Mac started.

“Yes…I’m sorry.”

Hearing the guilt in Methos’ bleak tone, MacLeod said, “You’ve nothing to be sorry for. Cassandra told me that you rescued me. If it weren’t for you I’d still be trapped there.”

“That was kind of her. But did she tell you as well that if it weren’t for me, it wouldn’t have happened to you at all,” Methos corrected. He hadn’t come any closer to the bed. He was still standing exactly where MacLeod had left him when he’d stepped away to remove his coat, looking like a prisoner in the dock awaiting judgment.

“What are you talking about?” Mac questioned. “How could any of this possibly be your fault?”

MacLeod could almost feel the act of will it required for the exhausted man to meet his gaze.

“It was Alexander Longford who had you kidnapped,” Methos said, sounding like he was confessing to the crime himself.

“And Ritchie killed….” Duncan softly added. He searched for the hatred that should have been there, but wasn’t. It was weird. He knew he should be enraged at Longford, but the only thing he felt was that terrible aching inside at the thought of poor Ritchie.

His face growing even paler, Methos nodded, “And Ritchie killed.” After an empty silence, Methos softly informed, “We buried him with Tessa. I hope that’s all right?”

Mac nodded, grateful. “Tell me the rest?”

“There’s not much to tell. I…went a little crazy. Hell, that’s not true, I…lost it totally. I kept seeing you in my dreams buried alive somewhere …when I slept at all. I spent months searching for you in every conceivable manner. But I didn’t find you until Longford called to make the exchange.”

“Your life for mine?” Duncan guessed.

Methos nodded.

“Did you take him?” Mac asked, feeling something at last. If Methos hadn’t killed the bastard, MacLeod would do so as soon as he found his katana.

Methos gave a slow, negative shake of his head. “No, I gave him to you.”

“Huh?”

As Methos relayed the rest of the story, MacLeod began to get a sense of the living nightmare this must have been for his lover. He didn’t need to hear it; he could see what this ordeal had cost his companion in Methos’ haggard features and flensed flesh. Methos looked like the one who had been buried alive, and, perhaps in a way, he was, MacLeod realized, seeing even now the distance his friend kept. Methos was clearly buried under a guilt that eclipsed even what Mac felt over Ritchie’s loss.

“I was unconscious for how long?” MacLeod asked when Methos came to that part of his tale.

“Nearly two months,” Methos somehow made it sound as if that were his fault as well.

“And you took care of me all that time?” Mac was…humbled when he realized just what was involved here. Most people would have hired a nurse or left him in a long-term care facility on holy ground until he recovered. That Methos had troubled himself with such unpleasantries as changing diapers – of which MacLeod could still see two unopened plastic bags stacked by the dresser – was incredibly moving. He’d known the ancient Immortal loved him, but that type of service went above and beyond the call of either love or duty, especially when dealing with this sometimes lazy man whose usual answer to physical drudgery or toil was ‘get someone in to do it.’

Methos’ eyelids lowered almost demurely. “It was no big deal, Mac.”

“No big deal? My God, man….”

“Joe and Grace helped,” Methos said, sounding like he was attempting to downplay his own involvement.

About to continue his former line of discussion, Mac was temporarily sidetracked. “Grace?”

“Chandell,” Methos supplied. “Joe was understandably doubtful of my lack of current medical experience, so he called her in for a consultation.”

“Grace doesn’t even know Dawson,” Mac said, experiencing that weird sense of everything being just the slightest bit off again.

Methos chuckled. “She does now. Quite well, in fact. Biblically, even. They’ve set up housekeeping in Paris.”

“Grace and Joe Dawson…?” Mac repeated, trying to get his mind around the idea of his old lover and closest mortal friend finding something together. The idea wasn’t as unthinkable as it had initially seemed. Joe Dawson would be good for Grace, while Grace…MacLeod didn’t know many men Grace wouldn’t be good for. She was a truly special lady.

Methos nodded and gave the first comment he’d made today that sounded anything like his normal droll self, “They are nauseatingly adorable.”

Mac felt his lips turn up in a small smile. “I’m glad for them.”

“Yes, Joe was due some happiness. None of this was easy on him,” Methos said.

Looking at how his absence and recovery had ravaged Methos, MacLeod thought his lover’s previous statement something of the kettle calling the pot black. But he kept the thought to himself, not wanting to make his friend self-conscious.

Trying to get an idea of just what had been happening to him these last few months, Mac said, “You said you found me last Halloween and that I was unconscious for two months. It’s got to be April or May out there now. What…what happened to me in between? I’ve got…no memories at all of this place and yet, it all seems so familiar….”

For the first time since they’d entered the room, Methos seemed reluctant to answer his question. After a moment, Methos softly offered, “You’ve been…stuck between worlds. Your eyes have been open and you’ve been mobile since December, but your mind has been elsewhere.”

“How is that possible?”

Guilt, hesitation, maybe even fear, MacLeod was picking them all up from Methos as his lover answered with a sardonic flair, “Some would call it magic gone awry.”

“Cassandra…?” It didn’t sound like the kind of mistake that a woman who could shape shift into a wolf at will would make.

Methos gave a negative shake of his head, “No, I’m the culprit here. Cassandra arrived two weeks ago. She has been working with you for most of that time, exhausting herself trying to undo the damage my bumbling inflicted on you.”

Now he was sure he was dreaming, but Methos seemed perfectly serious.

“Your bumbling? What are you talking about?” Mac demanded, still not understanding.

“I know Joe Dawson told you I knew Myrddid the Magician. I…was his apprentice for decades. I tried to heal you and didn’t have the skill. I mucked it up and was too scared of doing more harm to try it again.”

Methos was completely serious, Mac realized, still unable to believe what he was hearing. “You…healed me with…magic?”

Looking crest-fallen, Methos shook his head and corrected, “I tried, but I…mucked it up.”

“So you sent for Cassandra?” Mac questioned.

“No,” Methos said. “To be honest, it never even occurred to me. I was hoping you’d come around on your own.”

“So how did she get here?” MacLeod asked, trying to make sense of the events at least. The magic part was still too much for him to wrap his mind around. He was accepting it because Methos said he’d done it, but…believing it was another story. For now, he’d stick to the cold, hard facts and sort the rest out later when he wasn’t so…confused.

“She, too, dreamt of your captivity. She’d been searching for you for more than a year when she showed up on our door,” Methos explained.

“And you let her in?” Mac still couldn’t get his mind around this. He’d seen the totally understandable hatred Cassandra bore her former captor. She wanted Methos’ head and, although MacLeod couldn’t allow her to take it, he totally understood the revenge that drove her. That Methos would chance his head like that for his sake got past even the wall around Mac’s emotions and moved him. He owed this incredible man so much.

Yet, Methos was still standing there looking like a guilty penitent. Mac saw those slender shoulders shrug, and then Methos said, “I’d run out of options, Mac. I’d have made a deal with Beelzebub himself if he’d shown up at our door promising a cure.”

Seeing the truth of that in those desperately weary features, Mac swallowed hard. To be so loved…he felt so unworthy of this. Methos’ devotion deserved passionate recompense, not this distant guilt and gratitude that barely penetrated the wall buffering MacLeod from his emotions. He could see how his unnatural reserve was hurting Methos, who was standing there looking like he expected to be punished for loving him beyond sanity or reason.

“Methos?” Mac choked out.

“Yes?”

“Come here,” Mac patted the bed beside him.

There shouldn’t have been hesitation or reluctance, not after how long Methos had toiled to get him back, but it was there. Methos came slowly over to him, taking the seat beside him as though he expected to be beheaded or tortured.

Studying his lover, Mac realized that it was his own attitude affecting Methos. The man was already self-conscious about what he’d confessed, blaming himself for things that were outside of anyone’s control. MacLeod realized that he would normally have been a lot warmer and supportive in the discussion they’d just had. He would have told Methos straight off that he wasn’t to blame for any of this. Instead, he’d sat here like a bump on a log, unable to reach out from behind this barrier that was keeping him from feeling anything too deeply. That damn wall was making him hurt the last person in this world who deserved it.

It shouldn’t have been an effort, but Mac had to force himself to reach out and put his hand on Methos’ too slender back. The doubt in those dark ringed eyes made Mac hate himself. This was just not right. This man deserved so much more than this.

“You’re not to blame for any of this,” Mac said, wanting to get that much out, even if he couldn’t give anything better.

“If it weren’t for me, Longford would never have--”

“He made those choices, not you,” Mac said.

He could see it in Methos’ eyes that the other man was unconvinced. Knowing what Methos needed, Mac reached out his other hand to embrace him, only to have Methos stop his hand midair.

“You don’t want to touch me,” Methos said, his expression like stone…the kind you saw in ancient ruins, cracked and pitted, ready to crumble at the slightest touch. “I can see it in your eyes. Don’t force yourself.”

Mac froze. He was hurting inside too much to really be aware of how he was affecting others. He’d only wanted to help, but he could see now that he’d cut Methos to the quick.

“I’m sorry,” Mac said, hearing how dead his gruff voice sounded to even his own ears. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me….”

Methos drew in a deep breath. It seemed to require every bit of energy he had to answer, “It’s not your fault.”

Mac could see whose fault Methos thought it was clearly reflected in those red-rimmed, hazel eyes. Normally, he would have made an instant denial of that unspoken self-accusation and reassured Methos both verbally and physically, but for the first time in their acquaintanceship, Mac didn’t know how to reach out to his friend, how to make this right between them, so he tried with, “I-I don’t mean to hurt you.”

But he was. He could see how his stumbling efforts were falling flat, adding salt to open wounds rather than assuaging them. He was ripping pieces out of his lover without even trying. And it wasn’t as though Methos were being oversensitive, either. It was clear the man had finally reached his emotional limits, that he was trying to be strong for MacLeod, but that he just didn’t have anything of himself left to give. Methos was as scarred by this last year as he was, perhaps even more so, because he’d been conscious the full time and carried the responsibility and burden. Mac had never seen his lover more in need of solace, and he just didn’t know how to offer that comfort from within this icy shell encasing his emotions.

“I know,” Methos said, looking quickly away, but not before Mac saw the brightness welling in his abused looking eyes.

It was just so fucking unfair. Methos didn’t deserve this kind of disappointing reunion. Why couldn’t he just be happy, the way he should, Mac wondered.

This time Methos didn’t seem to have the strength in him to shake Mac off when he embraced him. He burrowed his wet face into the front of the Highlander’s salmon colored shirt while Mac just sat there like a stump, awkwardly holding his lover while Methos quietly fell apart. Mac recognized the results of exhaustion and stress when he saw them, even if he no longer had the sense of how to offer the comfort that was so terribly needed.

Finally, Methos took a deep, sobbing breath and pulled back. “I’m sorry. I…”

Mac shook his head. “It’s not you. It’s me. I’m still…broken inside. I…I think maybe I need to get away for a while...and get my head together…someplace where I won’t be hurting you all the time….”

It was soon for that kind of statement, Mac knew, but he didn’t see things getting any better for him any time real soon and he didn’t want to keep gouging out pieces of Methos’ heart with his lack of consideration. Of course, what he’d just blurted out qualified as a whopper of a thoughtless act.

At first, the blunt words seemed to finish what he’d started – totally destroy his lover – but then, something strange flashed across Methos’ face. If he didn’t know better, Mac would have classified the fleeting emotions as inspiration and relief.

“Perhaps…that’s not a bad idea. We’ve both always gone walkabout when things get too rough,” Methos stiffly agreed.

For some reason, MacLeod was struck by the odd sense that the wool was being pulled over his eyes, but he didn’t see how. He just suddenly felt like he was being conned here, which made no sense since it was he himself who had issued the proposal.

“I don’t want to leave you,” Mac insisted. “I just--”

“Need some space,” Methos finished. “I understand.”

“I don’t,” Mac admitted. “All those months when I was locked up, I thought I’d be…overjoyed to be back. I wanted nothing more than to be alone with you in a bed, but…nothing is working right inside me.”

“You need to heal,” Methos said, sounding much more himself. “You will. Just…give it time.”

“Can you…” it was a hell of a thing to ask after everything Methos had done for him this year, but Mac loved this man too much to leave things like this, “…would you be willing to wait for me?”

“I have waited for you my entire life,” Methos gave him a sad smile. “A few more weeks or months will hardly matter. And, I need to do my own healing, as well. Would you…”

“Yes?” Mac encouraged when the uncertain words died away.

“Would you be willing just to…lie down beside me for a short while…just to rest? Then, when we get up, we can make your arrangements. Your katana is in the blue case over there.”

The pain inside him ballooning at that heart-breaking request, Mac lay back on the mattress, drawing his companion down beside him. Methos looked like he’d forgotten what rest or sleep were, and as for himself…he was ridiculously tired for a man who’d done nothing more physically demanding for months than walk across a room.

Though Methos appeared so exhausted that he wouldn’t be able to keep his eyes open once his head hit the pillow, he turned on his side to face him. Eyes opened wide, that purple-bagged gaze watched him from across the pillow, seeming to drink in his presence. If MacLeod didn’t know better, he’d swear Methos were memorizing everything about this moment.

Very aware of the fact that they weren’t really touching, for all their proximity, MacLeod reached out and laid his hand across Methos, banding both his arms and sternum.

“I want things to be better again,” Mac whispered.

Mac didn’t understand the sadness in Methos’ expression and tone as he answered, “They already are. Once you heal, this will be but another bad memory.”

“For us both,” Mac tiredly offered.

“Yes, of course,” Methos replied.

Sensing that he’d just been lied to, but having no clue as to what the nature of the lie could be, MacLeod studied that beloved face. Methos looked so haggard that it hurt to gaze upon him.

After a few minutes, Methos slipped his outer arm from beneath MacLeod’s embrace and covered Mac’s forearm with his hand, pressing it tight to his stomach. “Duncan?”

“Mmmm?” he mumbled, a lovely sense of lethargy overtaking him. Perhaps if he slept a while, that wall around his heart mightn’t be so very thick when he awoke.

He forced his sluggish eyes open when he heard the gulp Methos gave.

“I, ah, never really told you this before, but…I do…love you. Being with you…made up for everything that came before.”

The sense of finality in Methos’ attitude puzzled him until he realized that Methos might believe he had no plans of returning to him once he left. Already beginning to question the wisdom of his proposed leaving, MacLeod softly assured, “I love you, too. And…I will be back. I swear it.”

Methos forced a smile. “I know. Sleep now. You’ll feel better when you awake.”

“You, too,” MacLeod urged, thinking that he’d never seen a man who needed the rest more.

“I’ll sleep soon enough,” Methos said in a strangely foreboding tone, but then he smiled and leaned forward to place a light kiss on Mac’s forehead.

Thinking that maybe everything might be all right when he woke up, after all, Mac allowed his tiredness to overtake him and gave into sleep.

******************

Life was rarely what you expected it to be, Methos acknowledged as he lay still beside Duncan, watching him sleep. The man was still shell-shocked from his abrupt reawakening. There had been so much to take in, so many shocks, one on top of the other. Mac had bourn them all with his typical courage, but Methos could see how his lover was still bleeding inside. It only stood to reason that it would be a while before Mac were feeling himself again. The last thing the poor guy had needed was to deal with his own breakdowns, Methos acknowledged, hating how he’d fallen apart on Mac.

Methos studied the handsome face beside him on their shared pillow, already seeing the changes. The innocence that had typified MacLeod’s slumber for the last six months was still there, but there was far more expression to his sleeping face as he dreamed. The difference was subtle, but noticeable.

Methos breathed a sigh of relief, offering up a quiet prayer of thanks to whatever deity had taken pity on them. Mac would be all right now. He would heal and grow stronger, while Methos himself….

He had a bargain to keep.

Though it had hurt to hear Mac make the perfectly understandable suggestion that they separate for a time, it would actually fit in well with his plans. He would speak to Cassandra about waiting until Duncan was gone to fulfill their bargain. In his present shocked state, Methos thought it highly unlikely that MacLeod would feel it when Cassandra took his head. Though his death would doubtlessly hurt Mac when he eventually learned of it, his lover would have no way of knowing that he hadn’t been another victim of this stupid Game they played. Mac would heal in time, as he always had in the past.

But…what if she didn’t want to wait, Methos thought. He couldn’t blame her. If their positions were reversed, he’d want to take his payment immediately and be on his way. He wasn’t fool enough to believe that there would be no repercussions with Mac were Cassandra to take his head this afternoon. Even if she told Mac about their bargain, he wouldn’t believe her.

Why it was so important that he protect her, Methos didn’t understand. Perhaps he felt that way because she had cured Mac for him as she’d promised. Or maybe it was a bit more complicated than that. Perhaps it had to do with those thousand regrets of his that lay heavy on his heart at night. All he knew was that he did not want for her to suffer again because of what he’d done to her in the distant past. His actions had hurt her so badly, twisted her up inside with a hate so fierce that it still flamed bright three thousand years later. Weary to the soul, Methos could only admire that type of fire.

Recognizing that Mac’s nap might be the only opportunity he had to address this problem, Methos leaned forward and kissed his lover’s brow again, then quietly slipped from under his arm and out of the bed.

Aware that he might not be returning should Cassandra require immediate satisfaction, Methos eased the nightstand drawer open and took out the pad and pen he kept there. For a long time, he stared at the blank white paper, not knowing what to say. It wasn’t quite as melodramatic as a suicide note, but these final thoughts would sum up the whole of his existence. Knowing that, he was coming up as blank as the paper. Finally, he just wrote:

Mac,

If you love me, you won’t hurt her.

The bargain was my idea and choice.

Live and grow stronger, Highlander.

Yours always,

Methos

He wanted to say a lot more, but…anything else would have been maudlin. So he folded the paper and stood there wondering where he should put it. If everything worked out as planned, he would be back before MacLeod awoke from his nap and his friend would never need see this note. But if he didn’t make it back, it had to be somewhere Mac would find it before he took her head.

His gaze fell upon the blue bag over by the dresser. He’d told Mac his sword was in there. If he put the note in with it, Mac would have to see it before he took any action. And it would be out of the way inside the case, not stumbled upon by chance.

Pleased, Methos bent to slip the note in with Mac’s sword.

Straightening up, he paused beside the bed on his way out for a long moment, just drinking in the sight of Mac sleeping. He truly felt like he’d loved this man forever, and, in some ways, it appeared he had. Cassandra had said that Mac had been Artos, and Methos knew for a fact that Mac had been Michél as well. Apparently, Duncan had been his three greatest loves, the relationships that it had almost killed him to lose. Had there ever been a more star-crossed pair of souls, Methos pondered, imagining traces of both his former lovers in Mac’s peaceful visage. If what Methos suspected were true, there was little wonder neither Mac nor he had been able to resist each other. They’d been trying to get it right for millennia.

Looking down at Mac, Methos allowed himself to remember the man whose name he never allowed to take root in his mind – Artos, the boy-king who had won his heart on that bridge with his courage and ridiculous sense of honor, the man he had loved with all his soul and never dared touch. Together, Artos and he had made the world a better place back then…and Methos had single-handedly brought it down around their ears. He’d never gotten the opportunity to tell Artos he was sorry.

And poor Michél…the guilt of that affair hardly ever left him. Methos had known from the start that it was a disaster in the making, but, as with Duncan, he hadn’t been able to resist the beautiful idealist who had loved him more than life itself, and died for his sake. There had been no time for an I’m sorry there, either.

As much as he’d cherished them both, neither of those men had moved him on the levels Duncan MacLeod did. From the day the Highlander had walked into Adam Pierson’s apartment searching for information on the legendary Methos, his heart had been lost. At least he hadn’t cost Duncan his life, Methos thought. He’d come damned close to it, but he’d managed to get Mac back. In time, his friend would heal. And once Cassandra took his head, this tragic dance would stop forever and Methos wouldn’t cost those stupid enough to love him their lives anymore. Duncan would flourish and become everything he was meant to be.

Grateful that he’d finally gotten the opportunity to get it right, Methos gave Duncan one last kiss and slipped from the bedroom to look for Cassandra.

She wasn’t downstairs in the hot springs, or in her room, or even in the garden.

The sun was setting behind the mountains out back when Methos stepped outside to search for her. It was just visible as a bright orange spot in a strip of clear sky between the heavy gray clouds that covered most of the valley and the towering alpine peaks. The magentas, pinks, lilacs and oranges tinting the clouds were truly breathtaking. Were she to take his head now, he couldn’t have chosen a more beautiful sunset to die under.

Not that he wanted to die. With Mac back, he wanted more than ever to live, but…he was through running. He’d made a bargain with her. Cassandra had kept her end of it. He’d keep his. He only prayed she’d be willing to put off the inevitable until Duncan was away from here.

Closing his eyes, he searched for her Immortal signature, and felt the faintest traces of it from the far side of the ruins. Methos gingerly made his way through the tumbled down chapel. Climbing out on the other side, he searched the orange-tinted valley for her. There, way down by the gushing stream, he could see a bright spot of pale blue on the boulders. He shivered at the sight of her, for in this uncertain light, she looked like something that had wandered across from another plane, the Lady of the Lake or perhaps a power even older than that.

Realizing that she was very far off holy ground, Methos wondered if she were waiting there for him to keep his end of their deal. He didn’t see a sword present, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t in the grass by the boulder she was sitting on.

Taking a deep breath, Methos slowly crossed the soggy field to meet her. The grass was just springing up underfoot, the entire world about to explode with life. It would be a dramatic Quickening, here in this wild place, he thought.

Cassandra was more wraith than woman as she sat on that rock, staring down at the gurgling stream, as though listening to it speak. He stood behind her for a time, but she didn’t turn to look at him. She had to know he was here, Methos thought. It wasn’t like Immortals could ever sneak up on each other when there were only two of them in so deserted a venue.

Recognizing that she might very well be spirit walking, Methos cleared his throat and softly said, “I’m sorry to interrupt.”

She sighed and slowly turned to look at him from her seat on the gray boulder. “You’re not. I was just thinking of you.”

“Oh?” he tried not to sound alarmed, but probably failed miserably. He wasn’t brave like MacLeod. He didn’t know how to do death heroically.

“Do you know what Duncan told me on the spirit plane before I brought him back today?” she asked.

He slowly shook his head, wary of her, for he had no idea what hurtful thing Duncan might have shared with her.

“He said that he was searching for a time when the two of you could be together. He took me through Artos’ life three times last week.” Methos had no idea why she was telling him this. There was nothing in her words that could be used as ammunition. To the contrary, it was almost a gift. He sharpened his attention as she continued, “This afternoon it was a young man named…” she stopped and stared at him, as if testing him.

“Michél,” Methos completed, braced for the blast that must come. Who could look at how he’d ruined those lives and not censure him?

“That’s right,” she said, falling quiet again.

Myrddid used to do things like this, damn him with silence, Methos remembered, tensing as he waited. But she didn’t say anything else for the longest time. Methos stared at the silver water gushing by, his gaze moving to the heavy red buds on the bushes and small trees around the stream, shivering to speak of death in a place with so much new life bursting out around them. Finally, Methos gulped and forced himself to address his reason for seeking her out. “Mac is going to be leaving…probably tomorrow morning. I wondered if you might be persuaded to wait until he’s gone before we fulfill our bargain? I – I'd rather spare him that.”

There, it was said.

The sharp glance she cast his way was hardly encouraging. Steeling his heart, Methos prepared for the worst. The Quickening might not be visible back at the cottage, but he wouldn’t bet on it.

“What do you mean Mac is leaving?” she demanded.

That wasn’t what he’d anticipated her taking issue with. Gulping in a breath, for he really didn’t have nerves of steel when it came to offering his head more than once in a night, Methos softly explained, “He’s still pretty traumatized by what’s happened. He needs some time alone to regroup…I thought if we waited till he left, it wouldn’t add to his burdens….”

She was staring at him as though he’d taken complete leave of his senses. He didn’t know if that was any better than being regarded as the Anti-Christ. That, at least had accorded him some degree of competence.

“Will you do it?” his nerves finally cracked.

“Do what?” she asked, looking completely bewildered.

“Wait to keep our bargain?” Methos stood utterly still, waiting to see if he’d be granted that one-day reprieve.

The gentleness which softened her face was completely unexpected. Those bewitching green eyes appraised him for an uncomfortable eternity before Cassandra finally sighed and said, “I don’t want your head, not anymore.”

For a second, he thought she was mocking him, her statement was just so unbelievable, but then he saw she was in earnest. His next words passed his lips before he had the sense to think about what he was saying, “What? Why not?”

“Several reasons. Let’s just say that a healer doesn’t barter for her services and leave it at that,” Cassandra replied, appearing uncomfortable.

“It was I who made the offer,” Methos reminded.

“It doesn’t matter,” she dismissed. “I cannot profit through my Lady’s mercy.”

“Cassandra, I don’t want to live my life waiting for you to jump out of a dark alley with a sword in hand. I – I’d rather we finish it here, after Mac leaves tomorrow,” Methos forced himself to say. He’d made this deal. She had every right to the vengeance she’d waited three millennia to claim.

“Oh, for…I can’t do it – all right? Not now, not a year from now, not a century from now, not ever. It’s over.”

“But….” seeing the truth of her words, he almost sagged with relief. Still, he had to understand. “Cassandra, why? Is it…because of Mac?”

That was the only thing he could think of, that she didn’t want to add to her old friend’s losses.

She was quiet for a time, staring down at him with that feline wariness. Finally, she softly admitted, “Mac had something to do with it. As you noted the night I arrived, it was my indiscretion with Longford that made Duncan a target. Beyond that…I know what his life has been like. He’s had more than his share of tragedy. I won’t add to it by taking the head of the man he’s spent three lifetimes trying to love.”

The lump in his throat nearly as huge as the boulder Cassandra was sitting on, Methos swallowed hard and rasped out, “I know that you don’t spare me for my sake, but I thank you all the same, Cassandra.” He wished he could say more, but he knew how abhorrent he was to her, so he finished with, “I’m…grateful. You and I both know I don’t merit mercy. I wish I could change that, but…the past is already written. I know my presence bothers you…I’m – I'm going to go back inside now.”

“Methos?” she said as he turned to leave her.

“Yes?” he froze, almost afraid of her, because she was something more powerful and brilliant than this world had seen in fifteen-hundred years. Myrddid was speaking through her tonight, as was her Lady.

“I don’t do it just for Duncan. The man I’ve spent three-thousand years hating…he doesn’t exist anymore.”

One wouldn’t think such soft words could destroy a man, but they just about cut Methos’ legs out from under him. He simply wasn’t prepared for them.

“W-what?” he stammered.

“I’ve watched how you are with Duncan. Through his spirit’s rovings, I’ve seen how you’ve been for the past few millennia. Death is dead, Methos. Were I to take your head now, I’d be killing one of my Lady’s chosen,” Cassandra explained, obviously uncomfortable, but determined to offer him this courtesy.

She completely undid him. He’d expected her to kill him tonight, or delay it and scorn him for his cowardice, but this….

His nerves frayed beyond repair, he was appalled to feel his emotions burst out of him, as they already had twice with Duncan today. The tears were streaming hot down his face and he was shaking all over. That she would forgive him when he’d come here with every intention of settling their debt…it was just too much to accept.

To his astonishment, warm arms encircled him. As he had that day in the Paris train yards when Amanda had accused him of setting her up, he broke down totally, sobbing in the arms of a woman who had every right to kill him. But she didn’t kill him. She stroked his back, and let him cry on her shoulder, and when he was cried out and too ashamed to meet her gaze, she lifted his chin and smiled at him, glowing like the goddess she represented in this world of disbelievers.

“Live and grow stronger, Methos. Duncan needs you,” smiling gently, she reached out to brush the last of his tears away. “I’m going to go back to the cottage now. Do you want to come with me?”

Still shaken by what had passed between them, he gave a negative shake of his head. “Not just yet. I need…”

“Some time to think,” she nodded. “I’ll start dinner.”

He watched her slide gracefully down from the stone she’d been perched on and begin to walk away in the twilight through the damp, fragrant field.

“Cassandra!”

“Yes?” she paused, nothing wary in her anymore. She looked…like the incarnation of her Lady, strong, confident, as wild and free as the stream rushing past them.

“Thank you. You didn’t have to…be that kind,” he lamely completed, very aware that he could never, ever repay her for what she’d given him here tonight.

She just gave him another one of those inscrutable, small smiles she’d bestowed upon him and corrected, “Yes, I did. I’ll see you back at the house.”

Shaken to the very core of his being, Methos sank down upon the damp, cold stone she’d just vacated and watched her cross the field.

*******************

MacLeod was alone in the bed when he opened his eyes, and alone in the house as well, from everything he could tell when he searched for other Immortals in the area. He lay there in the comfort of the big, old four poster bed, staring up at the ceiling, the memory of the pain that had bolted through Methos’ face when he’d announced his plan to leave haunting him like Caesar’s ghost had Brutus. And with good reason. He’d been an utter moron.

He didn’t wake up feeling healed and wonderful. His emotions were still in some kind of weird stasis, but at least his mind was operating a bit better. Mac didn’t know what the answer to his current problem was, but he was fairly sure it wasn’t skipping out on Methos. How he could ever have thought such a stupid thing in the first place only proved that he wasn’t himself. Leave Methos? True, he didn’t like hurting his friend the way he inadvertently had this afternoon, but what could hurt him worse than leaving him? He’d promised this man that he’d stay until there was no hope left for them, and they were so far away from that point that Mac couldn’t even think of it as a serious option. They weren’t without hope. They’d just been given their lives back together again. Everything was new and filled with infinite possibilities. So, why had he been so stupid as to voice that idea? Methos had already felt guilty over things that had been out of his control. God only knew how his lover must be feeling now. It must have felt like he were confirming every one of Methos’ guilts and doubts.

Sighing, Mac wished he’d had the sense to keep his mouth shut. But it was hardly the first time he’d spoken first and inserted foot later. He was just going to have to make things right with Methos. That was all that was to it.

Feeling better now that he at least had a plan, Mac swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up. He had no idea where Methos and Cassandra could have gone. As far as he’d been able to see, this cottage and the surrounding ruins were the only things for miles except mountains. He didn’t like the idea of them being out there alone together. Having Cassandra and Methos in the same place at the same time was akin to handling nitroglycerine. You could try to keep the bottle cool, but sooner or later, you knew it was going to explode in your face.

Figuring he’d better divert the catastrophe, Mac got up and fetched his coat from the chair on the other side of the room. He was headed for the door when the unnatural lightness of the hidden sheath reminded him of his vulnerable state. This might be holy ground, but there were those who weren’t above shooting another Immortal down on sacred ground and then dragging them off to deliver the coupe de grace. Recalling how Methos had said his sword was in the blue bag across the room, MacLeod crossed to the dresser.

The sight of the unopened packs of adult diapers stacked there made him uncomfortable. In all his years, he’d never nursed anyone that way. He’d changed the occasional baby diaper, of course, and emptied more than his share of bedpans, but that was different than what Methos had done for him, less…intimate. He couldn’t imagine tending someone that way. The degree of patience and devotion it would require were mind-boggling.

Trying to chase the disconcerting thoughts from his mind, he unzipped the long, blue canvas bag. There was a piece of paper on top of the bag’s contents when he opened it. Mac put the paper on his knee and reached inside to withdraw the long, velvet-wrapped bundle within. He could almost feel his katana lying there in the soft black material.

A sweet thrill singing through him, he carefully unwrapped his weapon, tracing the dragons carved on its ivory hilt with the same reverence he felt when he traced that scar on Methos’ forehead. They were both such an integral part of his life now that Mac couldn’t imagine functioning without either; though if he had to choose, the sword would definitely go. Smiling as he thought of his lover’s sardonic reaction to that dubious honor, Mac realized that he was feeling a hell of a lot better than he had when he’d come in this afternoon.

He moved to get to his feet, and the forgotten piece of paper on his knee tumbled to the floor. He was about to pick it up and stuff it back into Methos’ bag when his name printed in Methos’ clear, almost scribe-like handwriting caught his attention. Realizing that it was some kind of short note addressed to him, Mac read the words, his blood turning to ice at the first line.

Mac,

If you love me, you won’t hurt her.

The bargain was my idea and choice.

Live and grow stronger, Highlander.

Yours always,

Methos

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what the bargain Methos had written of must be. There was only one thing Cassandra would ever want from Methos.

And suddenly, his emotions weren’t separated behind that horrible wall anymore. He was terrified, as scared as he’d been when he’d died a few times in that stinking car trunk and realized that it was entirely possible that he would never be found.

Methos had obviously agreed to trade his head for…for the healing she’d granted him, MacLeod realized, barely able to believe that the seductive enchantress of his boyhood could possibly agree to such an evil deal.

His panic putting an ominous significance on the empty cottage, Mac leaped to his feet and raced for the door.

The sun had set. It was past twilight, but not yet full darkness. There were two cars in the driveway, one of them Methos’ familiar Land Rover. The other a Ford rental. That meant they were still here someplace. Certainly not on holy ground, she wouldn’t do it there. The power throbbing through both the cottage and ruins announced that this was all holy ground.

Mac looked to his left, but that appeared to be a driveway leading through a cemetery out to a road. The graveyard was definitely sacred ground, so that was out. And MacLeod didn’t think that Cassandra would take a chance of beheading Methos on a public road. This cottage might be remote, but there was nothing like a Quickening to catch a passing car’s attention.

No, they must have gone the other way - through the garden and abbey ruins to whatever lay behind them.

He was racing for the ruins at full speed when he saw Cassandra gingerly making her way through the tumbled down granite slabs in the encroaching darkness. Her pale blue gown picked up all available light, throwing it back with an eldritch aura.

Mac stumbled to a halt. Breathing hard, his heart racing, he felt completely out of shape as he waited for her to come to him. He was too late. Whatever had happened; it was over now. His stomach was in knots. He thought he’d know if Methos were taken, but with this distancing reserve buffering him, it was possible he’d miss his own beheading. He could see that Cassandra wasn’t armed, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t thrown her sword away after killing Methos.

“If you’ve killed him, I will take your head,” he warned her, sick at the thought.

Methos….

“What?” she stopped where she was, a half a dozen feet back in an ankle-snapping tangle of broken granite and ivy vines.

“Where is Methos?” Mac demanded, very aware of the fact that he was threatening a woman. He was six inches taller than her and, even thin as he was, he still outweighed her by forty or fifty pounds. But if she’d killed Methos, he’d have her head.

Cassandra stared at him through the darkness for a minute, her eyes glowing silver in the dying light. Then she demanded in an equally angry tone, “What do you care where Methos is?”

Now it was his turn to gape, “What?”

This wasn’t how this was supposed to go.

“I’ve never seen such ingratitude. He searched for you for over eight months, offered his head twice for your sake, and cared for you like a mother when you couldn’t wipe your own nose or bum…and you would reward him by walking away from him when he has the most need of you! You don’t have the right to ask where he is. It’s none of your damn business.”

He’d only heard her this angry once, when he’d forbidden her from taking Methos’ head in Bordeaux.

“What have you done with him, Cassandra?” MacLeod made an effort to calm himself, but he was angry enough to shake the teeth from her head. No more buffering distance, that wall holding his feelings back was definitely broken, he realized. If anything, he was nearly out of control now.

“Would you really like to know what I did with him?” Cassandra questioned in that chilling, cool way she had of testing a man’s mettle.

“Cassandra…” he growled.

“If you must know, I held him in my arms while he sobbed his heart out,” she said softly, stopping him cold with her barely reigned contempt. Not of Methos, but of him, Mac realized.

Confused, he toned down the aggression. “Why-why was he crying?”

“Why do you think?” she countered.

Her eerie green stare made him feel twelve years old again. Only, when he had been that young, he’d had no cause to stand before her in shame. Now he felt…almost a criminal.

“If you value his life, you will not leave him,” Cassandra warned him with the air of a Delphi oracle.

MacLeod could hardly credit how fiercely protective she sounded…of Methos, the man she’d wanted to behead the last time all three of them were together. Beginning to wonder exactly what had passed between the pair while he’d been…away, Mac quietly questioned, “What do you mean if I value his life?”

“He has given everything he is to you. He has withheld nothing, and therefore has no reserves to fall back upon. If you walk away from him now, he’ll let you go, but he won’t recover. He can’t. You will destroy him,” Cassandra warned.

“Why are you telling me this?” MacLeod questioned, utterly bewildered by this complete turnaround and shaken inside, because he knew she spoke the truth.

“Because I am your friend and you are about to lose something irreplaceable,” she answered.

“You think Methos irreplaceable?” he echoed, astounded. He, of course, knew Methos’ worth, but that she would be able to see it…abruptly, Mac began to understand the tremendous sacrifices Methos must have made for him on a daily basis to win this enemy’s heart over.

“Yes,” she answered simply. “You don’t have the right to--”

“Cassandra!”

They both swirled towards the road. They’d been so absorbed in their conversation that neither of them had sensed Methos’ approach, but there he was, passing the parked cars. Rather than make his way through the now pitch black ruins, Methos had obviously taken the sensible approach and cut through the field at a very wide angle to follow the road back to the cottage.

“Methos,” Duncan breathed a relieved sigh at the sight of his annoyed, but intact lover.

Methos stopped a few feet from them. MacLeod could almost feel the indignation pouring off his proud friend as Methos said to her, “You cannot command the heart. Duncan must do as he chooses.” Methos turned to him when he finished speaking to Cassandra. “Don’t listen to her, Mac. If you need to go, go. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. In fact, this place is getting somewhat claustrophobic. I’m going to pack my own things and--” Their eyes meeting, Methos stumbled to a halt, as though unable to voice the words.

Leave before he could be left, MacLeod finished the thought for his lover, seeing how brittle his exhausted friend’s control was and how deeply Cassandra’s words had hurt Methos. Pride was all he had left. Mac recognized that he’d broken Methos’ heart this afternoon.

Knowing what he had to do, but not quite sure how, MacLeod stepped up to Methos. That exhausted gaze eyed him as though Methos had been offered a challenge and was about to lose his head. Understanding that it probably felt like that to his friend on an emotional level, Mac decided to make the only thing that was important to him clear to Methos. “If you go, I go with you. Please…I’m sorry about before. I know I hurt you. It’s no excuse, but…I’m still so confused I’m not sure which way is up. The only thing I know for certain is that I love you and want to be with you. Please, say you won’t leave me?”

Methos gulped and glanced in Cassandra’s direction. At first Mac thought his friend was uncomfortable about having such an avowal voiced before an audience, but then Methos’ strained expression made it plain that he feared it was Cassandra’s words that had made MacLeod say what he had.

Most men would have assuaged their pride by turning on their heel and walking away, but most men didn’t have his Methos’ courage. Methos still looked like he feared he was making a dreadful mistake, but he stood firm. After a minute of simply staring at him, Methos held out his right hand to him, not in the position for a traditional handshake, but just hanging out there in the air, with his flat palm facing the ground and the expression in his eyes telling Mac he was waiting to have his heart handed back to him in pieces again.

Swallowing hard, Mac immediately took hold of that offered hand and used it to pull Methos closer. Ignoring their audience of one, MacLeod leaned in and kissed those tight-closed lips until they softened and became pliant.

Drawing back, MacLeod met those over-stressed eyes and repeated, “I’m sorry.”

Methos closed his eyes, took a deep breath and nodded.

Just another blow to his soul, locked away with all the other hurts, Mac realized. If there was one thing he was determined to do, it was put a stop to that. But this wasn’t the time for battles. This was the time for healing. So, he slipped his arm intimately around Methos’ waist and asked, “Come inside with me? I’m worn out.”

He was as buoyed by the burst of sheer pleasure that touching Methos sent through him as he was by his lover’s albeit hesitant nod of assent. At least one thing was returning to normal. Touching Methos felt good, not just on an emotional level, but on a visceral, cock-raising one.

They all entered the cottage together.

Once they were inside with their coats hung up, Methos glanced towards the kitchen and then over to Cassandra. “Dinner--”

“Can wait,” she smiled. “I thought I might visit the hot springs again.”

To give them their privacy, Mac translated.

Methos startled him by gently protesting, “You’ll turn into a prune if you keep that up. It really isn’t necessary. We’re all adults.”

Cassandra nodded, “I’ll keep that in mind.”

She went down those stairs behind the door in the kitchen all the same.

Left alone, an awkwardness descended between them.

Mac studied this man that he loved so much, hating the wariness in those exhausted features. Methos looked so changed: the long hair, the flensed flesh, the weariness that seemed ingrained in him now…worst of all was the air of hurt that cloaked him.

“I wasn’t lying before,” MacLeod said at last, not knowing if he could breach those formidable guards that had sprung up around Methos with Cassandra’s words, “I really am tired. Will you lay with me?”

Mac could see how that too-thin body tensed at his intentionally ambiguous wording. But although his apprehension was plain, Methos inclined his head in assent and reached out his hand to him again.

Ridiculously grateful, MacLeod grasped hold of his lover and interlaced their fingers, drawing Methos slowly back into their bedroom. The light on and door firmly closed behind them, he led Methos to the bed and released his hand.

Methos’ hand immediately moved to smooth down the hair on the right side of his head in a gesture that proclaimed his nervousness.

“We, ah, don’t have to do anything but sleep,” Mac said, thinking that he’d never seen anyone who needed it more. “I just want to hold you. Would that be all right?”

He didn’t know why, but his words seemed to hit Methos hard. He saw that thin form start, heard the short, hissed-in breath Methos gave.

“I’ve held you in my arms every night since December,” Methos said quietly. “You were never aware enough to hug me back. I’d like that.”

Starting to appreciate what had eaten the flesh off Methos’ body, MacLeod stepped forward and gathered the other man tight to his chest, trying not to notice the desperation in the arms that squeezed him back. All he’d ever wanted to do was ease his friend’s pain and loneliness, but loving him had brought Methos to the very brink of destruction. And he’d talked of leaving. Recognizing that he should be horse-whipped for the magnitude of his earlier inconsideration, Mac buried his nose in Methos’ shoulder and just held on.

They stood there for what felt like forever, with Methos gradually trusting more and more of his weight to his safekeeping. Realizing that the man he held was on the verge of falling asleep standing up, Mac eased them down onto the edge of the bed. Without waiting to be asked, he knelt down in front of his friend and quickly removed the hiking boots that Methos normally lived in. Smiling at the mismatched blue and black socks unveiled, he left them on, because he knew his friend felt the cold and the room was already chilly.

After dispensing with his own boots, Mac shucked off his jeans and shirt, tossing the dirty clothes onto the chair in the corner. When he turned back to the bed, Methos was watching him with that stunned look that was becoming familiar, like every tiny, independent act he performed was a major miracle. Recognizing that it was, Mac met that absorbed greenish gaze and slowly peeled his briefs off.

He heard the swallow Methos gave from four feet away.

Returning to the bed, he eased Methos back up onto his feet. Feeling that gaze watching his every move, Mac reached his hands between their waists to undo the button of Methos’ faded black jeans and unzip him. Unsurprised, he saw the sensitive flesh below surge to life as he carefully eased the zipper over that moving bulge and felt the tension that hardened the rest of Methos’ body.

He couldn’t imagine what caring for him must have been like for Methos – bathing, dressing and seeing to a million-and-one other intimate tasks for a man whose body was there, but whose mind was out to lunch.

Taking hold of the jeans’ waistband, he eased them over the nearly nonexistent hips and down the endless length of Methos’ dark-fuzzed legs. Bending down as he was, and being eye-to-eye with Methos’ waistline as it were, it was impossible to miss the heavy erection that was nudging through the placket of Methos’ gray and white boxers and tenting up the bottom of his loose gray Henley.

He’d said that they’d just sleep, but Methos’ body obviously had other ideas…as though anyone could blame him after nearly a year and a half of enforced celibacy. Mac wondered if he should ask permission, but then realized that that would break the gentle mood that had formed between them and interrupt the natural flow of things. So, he reached out and nudged aside the bottom of Methos’ shirt to bare the cock had hadn’t seen in God knew how long to the light.

Methos was as big and beautiful as ever…and growing as he watched.

The small, pleading, sex sound that Methos made as MacLeod collected that moist shaft into his hand shot right through the Highlander, making his own hand shake nearly as badly as the wobbly legs that were struggling to hold Methos up. He was hardly surprised when Methos’ hands shot out to brace themselves on his shoulders. If Methos hadn’t, the tremors shaking his long frame would have tumbled them both to the Oriental-carpeted floor.

Savoring the feel of that needy organ, Mac’s fingers stroked it to fullness, slowly and lovingly. The helpless sob from above finally brought home how unintentionally cruel he was being. It had obviously been far too long for Methos to go slow. As much as Mac was enjoying drawing the experience out, he realized that he was torturing this man who had waited ages to be touched by him again.

Without further delay, he sucked that hungry cock into his mouth, cherishing the salty, musky that jolted through him. So long…it had been so god damned long….

He opened his throat wide and swallowed his lover down. His excitement rising, Mac could feel the energy spiraling between them. That strange vortex was beginning to form, beckoning to him with seductive promise, but…it was over before Mac had the chance to reach for it. He’d barely delivered two sucks to that pulsing cock when Methos groaned and exploded against the back of his throat.

Hardly surprised by the quick climax, Mac held on, sucking until the organ deflated to something near human size.

Smiling, Mac sat back on his heels, licked his lips and looked up.

Methos’ face was not the peaceful visage he’d hoped and expected it to be. His eyes were scrunched tightly closed, his features a study in torment.

“Methos?” Mac questioned, rising quickly to his feet.

Those eyes opened. MacLeod never wanted to see again such a lost and embarrassed expression on that beloved, too-thin face.

Appearing horribly ashamed, Methos rasped out, “I’m…sorry. I don’t have any control. I….”

“Like I do?” MacLeod interrupted the painful, unnecessary apology. “You gave me what I was hungry for.”

Calming, Methos’ sense of humor rallied, “Much sooner than you were expecting it.”

His first true grin feeling better than an orgasm, Mac relished it and said, “So, make me beg for it next time. You’ve gotten too used to spoiling me.”

“So I did it for your sake then?” Methos questioned, seeming bemused, but delighted by their interplay.

“It certainly felt that way,” MacLeod replied. “Bed?”

Methos nodded and sank almost gratefully onto the mattress behind them. MacLeod followed him in and was struck by a sudden uncertainty. “Which side of the bed is mine?”

Methos sobered at the question. “I usually sleep on the inside. That way if you had to go in the middle of the night, I didn’t get stepped on.”

“Stepped on…but I thought…I mean, I saw the diapers….” MacLeod could feel his face heating.

“You haven’t needed them since December,” Methos informed. “It was strange. The only thing you would do of your own volition was use the facilities.”

“That must have been a relief,” Mac said, wondering that this man would even want him after having performed those kinds of services for him.

To his surprise, there was no immediate, heartfelt agreement. Methos simply said, “It wasn’t a problem, either way. I….” Those troubled eyes met his own as Methos confessed, “I was just glad to have you back alive. I knew the rest would straighten itself out in time.”

“Have I even thanked you for what you did for me?” Mac asked, appalled by his failure.

Methos stiffened, “You don’t need to thank me, Duncan. None of this would have happened to you if it weren’t for me.”

Mac took hold of Methos’ shoulders in a firm grip, trying not to notice how little there was of them in his hands. “Listen to me. You are not responsible for any of this.”

Those dark-bagged eyes remained utterly unconvinced. “I have brought disaster to almost everyone fool enough to love me. You’re just fortunate I didn’t cost you your life this time.”

Shivering, because he could see where this would eventually lead if not nipped in the bud, Mac insisted, “None of this was your fault. This happened because a psychopath couldn’t stop living in the past.”

“I created that psychopath. The responsibility is and ever will be mine.”

Feeling the weight of that sad declaration, Mac stared into those guilt-ridden, exhausted eyes and snapped, “Bullshit. You are not responsible for Longford’s crimes. Yes, you did some terrible things three-thousand years ago, but you have changed your life around completely. You are not evil and you are not responsible for another man choosing to be evil.”

Perhaps if he’d been less tired, Methos wouldn’t have asked his next question. But the man really was several breaths away from collapsing from exhaustion, so the inquiry came out in the bewildered tone of a hurt child, “If that’s true, then why do I keep being punished? Duncan, every time I try to love, without exception, fate snatches that person away. I have had over sixty wives, and I never buried one of them from old age!”

Mac could see that the moment the words were out, Methos regretted voicing them.

Beginning to finally get a grasp of how this complicated mind worked, MacLeod softly asked, “Do you really think they all died to punish you?”

Though he could see how very much the drained man sitting beside him didn’t want to discuss this, Methos didn’t back away from the subject. Instead, he gave a single, tight nod and lowered his gaze.

MacLeod was quiet for a long moment. There were a dozen platitudes that sprang to his mind that people traditionally offered as comfort when dealing with situations like this, but Mac knew that they would be little recompense to this man who was older than all those adages. Finally, fixing on an argument that might get through, Mac softly questioned, “So, by that logic, you’re suggesting that I’ve done something terrible enough to merit that same punishment – for everyone I’ve ever loved with my entire being died as well…except for you.”

Methos tensed, obviously thrown by his observation.

When those tormented eyes dared his own again, MacLeod continued, “I know it feels like punishment, but…I think it’s just life, Methos. No man survives untouched by tragedy, not if he really lives the life he’s given…and you have always had the courage to live yours.”

Methos gave a noisy gulp.

MacLeod could see from the uncertainty in those ravaged features how his friend still doubted, perhaps not even his words, but the fact that he had that kind of courage left at all. Mac couldn’t say he blamed Methos. Cassandra hadn’t lied. Clearly, this ordeal had taken everything Methos had to give. He didn’t have any reserves to fall back upon. Mac searched inside himself and finally found the right words.

“It’s all right. You don’t have to be brave right now. I’ve got enough strength to cover us both for a while.” Recognizing what his lover needed more than anything right now, Mac stood them both up long enough to peel back the light blue duvet. He guided Methos back into the bed and slid in to take his place beside him.

There was no awkwardness this time as he turned to Methos. Gathering the other man into his arm, Mac settled flat on his back with Methos’ long form draped around and on top of him, their usual sleeping position.

If the arms hugging him were tighter than normal, Mac affected not to notice. They were both just aching so much inside that they both needed comfort. This simple contact was what his soul had been hungering for the entire time of his captivity. When the pain would get the worst, he’d always try to imagine himself lying safe in Methos’ arms. Now that he was there, he never wanted to move again.

His right hand stroked over the cotton Henley covering Methos’ back. MacLeod was still distracted enough to find the differences in texture between where the shirt was heated from Methos skin or damp with perspiration fascinating. And the sensation of their bare, hairy legs meeting was completely absorbing. As he pressed his lips against Methos’ wide brow, MacLeod couldn’t help but think how it truly felt like he was in a new body. Everything seemed to have depths and nuances now that he’d never noticed before.

He was still cataloguing the sensual smorgasbord that was Methos when he felt the other man drop off to sleep. His lips still fastened to that warm, smooth forehead, Mac closed his own eyes and let the wonder of it carry him away.

******************

The next few days were a quiet, almost contemplative period for them both. Neither of them seemed inclined to be out of sight of the other for very long. Since Mac seemed equally affected, Methos didn’t worry about it too much. In fact, he was making a conscious effort not to worry about anything for a while. All that crap he’d dumped on poor Duncan his first night back weighed heavy on his conscience, but, strangely enough, it seemed to have brought them closer together.

Like now. They were sitting here at the kitchen table, laughing softly as they fed each other sausages and eggs like honeymooners. He didn’t know how to tell Duncan that it was okay to take the kid gloves off now. He’d been shaky at first, but a few nights of solid, uninterrupted sleep had done wonders for him. The rings had all but disappeared from around his eyes and he hadn’t had a single nightmare in three nights, yet MacLeod was still treating him like he was made of porcelain. Not that it was bad to be so openly cherished, but…Mac was the one who’d just returned from the dead. Methos couldn’t get past the feeling that he should be the one offering the royal treatment.

“More?” Mac questioned, popping a sausage into his mouth and leaving the end dangling out invitingly.

Methos chuckled as MacLeod wagged it at him, giving a firm shake of his head, “No, really. I’ll explode.”

“Grumf…noot…lik…grumf…ly….” Mac mumbled around the sausage.

Finally swallowing the mouthful, MacLeod sobered and softly asked, “Did you eat at all while I was gone?”

Methos felt his own smile drop. “I didn’t have much of an appetite.”

Mac leaned across the table and gave him a slow, greasy, sausage-flavored kiss.

They were still absorbed in it when Cassandra’s bedroom door opened. Methos was surprised to see her wearing a pair of blue jeans and a plain white blouse that looked more like Grace’s conservative style than this enchantress’ normal alluring attire.

“Good morning,” she greeted, smiling as they parted like guilty schoolboys caught in the act.

“Good morning,” Methos replied, still not accustomed to her being polite to him. He still wasn’t comfortable enough to relax in her presence and joke with her like Mac did so freely.

“Hi, Cassandra,” Duncan said, much less formally as she took a seat at the table. “Did you sleep well?”

She cast a sly glance MacLeod’s way, seeming to wait until he’d taken another mouthful of sausage before answering his solicitous inquiry with a completely sensuous, yet innocently voiced, “Not as well as you, Duncan.”

In five-thousand years, you learned how to duck. Methos was laughing as hard as Cassandra as MacLeod sprayed his half-chewed food all over his plate.

“Cassandra!” the outraged, red-faced Highlander protested.

Sharing a smile with Methos, Cassandra went to the stove to cook her eggs.

“I don’t remember you being so wicked,” MacLeod said, swapping up the mess he’d made with his napkin.

“Then obviously you’re not recalling the nights we shared,” she smiled back over her shoulder at Mac.

Amused, Methos watched his bashful friend turn color again. Mac was just too predictable for words sometimes.

His humor dimmed though as he appreciated how strange this must be for MacLeod, to be here with an old lover sleeping two doors down while his present one slept beside him. That they could joke at all like this was a wonder. When Mac had been courting Amanda, Methos had sometimes managed to tease them, but usually it just hurt too much to be around them. Cassandra didn’t appear to be having that difficulty, thank heavens. Though, if she’d believed that Mac and he were lovers before Bordeaux, she would have had plenty of time to get used to the idea.

Her eggs fried, she returned to the table and sat down beside him.

“I, um, I’m going to be leaving this morning after breakfast,” Cassandra said after a few minutes of contented chewing.

So that explained the conservative outfit. They were her travel clothes.

“What?” Mac said. “So soon?”

Surprised to find that he, too, was reluctant to see her go, Methos waited while she reminded Duncan, “I’ve been here over three weeks now. I have work that calls me back home.”

“What sort of work?” MacLeod questioned. “I haven’t seen you in forever, and you’re barely here before you’re leaving again.”

His sincere regret obviously touched Cassandra. After a moment, she said, “I’d really like to visit with you longer, but it’s too dangerous for me to linger…my work--”

“What do you mean dangerous? I don’t understand what work you’re talking about,” Mac said. “Couldn’t you bide a few more days with us?”

Cassandra glanced at Methos and then softly explained, “Duncan, I live in one of the few remnants of old growth forest left in Scotland. Do you think it’s an accident that the developers have overlooked the Donan Woods all these years? Every day I linger puts my home in jeopardy.”

Even now, Methos could see how uncomfortable MacLeod was with the working of the Mystery. Looking adorably befuddled, Mac started, “Well, put that way….”

“I guess you’ll have to leave us,” Methos completed, unable to hold his laughter in when Cassandra’s eyes met his. She was laughing too.

All too soon, she was finished and in the doorway with her oversized travel bag.

Mac stepped up to her and gave her one of those amazing bear hugs that Methos would die for.

“You know I can never thank you or repay you enough for what you did for me – don’t you?” Mac said. “If ever you have need of us….”

Liking that us, Methos finished his choked up lover’s thought with, “We will be there.”

Released from Mac’s arms, Cassandra turned to him.

Even though things were better between them, Methos was still uneasy under her bewitching gaze.

“I have spent three-thousand years cursing and hating you for the man you were. That hatred blinded me to the man you have become, so…I ask your forgiveness, Methos,” she said softly. He couldn’t imagine how much it had taken for her to voice those words.

“My forgiveness? Cassandra, I…It is I who am sorry. I who needs forgiveness….” he couldn’t finish the thought. His voice just died on him.

After an awkward moment, she reached out to lay both her hands on his shoulders. “Perhaps we should just forgive each other then and have done with it?”

Recognizing that if he didn’t hide his face, he’d be bawling again – and he’d done far too much of that lately – Methos gave her a quick hug and buried his face in her shoulder.

He released her the moment she tried to step back. The supportive hand Mac placed on his back made it plain that he hadn’t been able to entirely hide his reaction.

“Blessings on you both. Love and grow stronger,” Cassandra said.

“Cassandra?” Methos said as she turned to hurry to her car.

“Yes?”

Methos took a deep breath. This was hard. “Would you…would you accept my master’s harp? I can think of none better to entrust it to.”

Giving that away was like offering her a piece of his soul, but…the harp was part of the Mystery and meant to be used. It didn’t belong hidden away from life like its owner’s dry bones. And Methos had always feared it too much to offer it the life it longed for.

He prayed she wouldn’t be insulted by what could be viewed as a trite material reward for the incredible act of kindness she’d shown him.

But apparently, she’d seen him clearer than he’d ever imagined possible.

“I can,” Cassandra countered, her expression a little distracted, as though she were listening to something only she could hear. “That harp chooses its master, Methos. Don’t fear it…or yourself. Mac would not trust his heart to someone unworthy, nor would that harp. Free it…and yourself.”

With that, she reached up on tiptoes, placed a kiss of benediction on his forehead and then scurried to the car.

Stunned, Methos just stood in the shelter of Mac’s arm and watched her drive away. He felt…he didn’t know how he felt. That she had chosen not to take his head was an incredible gift in itself, but not really all that surprising. She was a healer before all else, and those who worked the Mystery on a healing path did not mete out death. That she could offer him forgiveness…that was beyond expectation and he simply didn’t know how to respond to it.

“What was she talking about?” Duncan asked once her car disappeared from sight. “What harp? Methos?”

Shaking his head, Methos slipped out from under Mac’s arm and went back inside. He stopped in the center of the living room and just stood there, not seeing anything around him, feeling only a pressure crushing in on him from all sides.

“Methos?”

When Mac slid his arm around his waist and guided him towards the bedroom, Methos allowed himself to be led. He could feel those worried brown eyes watching him and for the briefest instant, he just wanted to escape. Then MacLeod’s arms closed around him and he was being gathered tight to that strong chest.

This was what he’d missed the most when Mac was gone or just not himself, this overwhelming empathy Mac had. Though he knew it drove his lover crazy not knowing the cause of his moods, Duncan still instinctively knew how to comfort him. And, the most amazing part of the entire thing was that he never had to ask. Mac was just there, offering whatever he needed.

Today was no different. Once he’d made it plain that he didn’t want to talk about it, Mac just held him and stroked his back, permitting him to soak in the warmth and goodness of MacLeod’s presence without making Methos feel either guilty or needy. And soak it in, he did, feeding on his lover’s strength until it became part of him and started to mutate.

Mac picked up on the transition immediately. Before Methos even knew what he was feeling himself, those full lips were nuzzling his neck and breathing behind his ear, racking him with the most delightful shudders.

“Bed?” Duncan whispered.

As Methos nodded and stepped far enough back to start peeling out of his clothes, he looked at Mac from under his lashes and asked, “How do you always know?”

Mac looked up from undoing his jeans and froze, seeming temporarily distracted by whatever he saw in Methos’ face.

“How do I know what? And, if you keep looking at me like that, we’re never gonna make it to the bed,” Mac warned with a smoky smile.

Stifling his own grin because he seriously wanted an answer, Methos explained, “Every time you’re holding me like that…and the tide changes from comfort to passion, you’re always right on top of it, even before I go hard. I just wondered how you knew.”

“Ancient Highland secret.” Mac winked at him.

Methos knew this man. He allowed his face to telegraph his disappointment, making just the tiniest show of trying to hide it, laying heavy on the Adam Pierson persona, and Mac tumbled like one of P. T. Barnum’s marks.

Looking stricken, MacLeod softly answered, “If you must know, you pull in this little whistlely breath just a few heartbeats before you go hard.”

“You sound like you’ve got me down to a science,” Methos observed, stepping out of his jeans and boxers. It wasn’t like he could make any kind of accusation, not with the way he constantly played upon his lover’s soft heart.

“More like an art.” Shrugging out of his brown shirt, Mac countered, then added in that tone that always brought thick dark chocolate to mind, “And it isn’t like you aren’t a virtuoso yourself.”

Distracted by the sight of all that lovely chest hair being unveiled, Methos hummed, “Hmmm?”

Mac gave a challenging tilt of his eyebrows, smoothed all emotion from his face, and then peeked up at Methos from beneath the fan of his dark lashes, just as Methos had done to him a moment ago.

Pole axed, Methos just gaped.

Seeing how he’d unnerved him, the now naked MacLeod stepped into his personal space, spicing the warm air between them with the fresh scent of his flesh. “Don’t get too worried. The only time I’m ever certain you’re doing it is when you give me that Bambi look.”

“Bambi….” Methos repeated, horrified, and then he was chuckling, because it was impossible not to when Mac threw that come-hither expression back at him. “You’re over-playing it. You need to lighten up on the eyelash batting.”

“I didn’t--” Seeing that he was joking, Mac erupted into that earthy laugh that fed Methos’ very soul.

Then their mouths met and all laughter stopped.

These last few days, everything had been so careful and gentle between them. They’d loved, but Cassandra’s presence in the next room had made them somewhat self-conscious. Also, neither of them had been themselves. They were still moving with care around each other, as if afraid that one impetuous move might rip them asunder again.

Methos wrapped his arms around MacLeod, breathing in the sweet, living scent of his flesh as he pressed his own naked front against his partner. Almost more than anything, he loved the feel of that soft-furred chest against his own near-smoothness.

When that heavy cock nudged his balls, Methos’ breath caught in his lungs with an almost painful hitch.

Mac’s hands were moving down his back, stroking his ass with more heat than he’d exhibited since Cassandra had returned him to Methos. Equally incited, Methos’ own palms did a reconnaissance of his lover’s broad back. After all the massages he’d given these past few months, Methos was intimately familiar with every ripple and vertebrae.

He allowed his hands to slip lower, onto the velvet softness of those perfect globes.

Mac broke from their kiss with a gasp as Methos gave those lush mounds a squeeze.

“Methosssss….” Mac hissed. Sidling them around, the Highlander tumbled them over onto the bed.

As usual, Methos twisted midair, making sure he fell at an angle. One of these days Mac was going to get a rude surprise when he pulled Methos down like that and ended up with a knee in his groin. But not today. Methos was still enough in his right mind to avert disaster, but not for long.

Horizontal, they fed on each other like starved wolves, licking, kissing and nuzzling every inch of skin that came into range. Methos worked his way down that sculpted chest, nosing through the fuzzy chest hair, licking along the sexy trail that arrowed down to Mac’s groin…where his favorite prize awaited him.

Without preamble, Methos swallowed that bulging cock, inhaling the inimitable musk that never failed to bypass every rational impulse he owned. While he worked that meaty shaft, Methos’ fingers made free with those dark, tight pubic curls, following them down to the tightening sacs below. Mac groaned deep and low as he played there, those powerful thighs splaying apart as Mac’s hips arched up at him and just about speared the cock in Methos’ mouth down to his intestines.

“Please…Methos….”

“Mmmm?” he made as coherent a request for information as he could, considering the fire in his veins and the cock rammed down his throat.

“Please?” Mac spread his legs a little wider and lifted up again.

Methos’ body comprehended the language being spoken here long before his mind caught up. When he finally understood, he froze a little and lifted his head from his service.

Mac’s eyes were glittering like black opals, his entire slick with sweat, his face lined with need.

Wondering if his lover knew what his body was requesting, Methos lowered his head and nuzzled his way down that tasty cock again, venturing past the tightening sacs to the of perineum. He shifted his lover’s legs around, to open him up wider. When there was no protest, he plunged in whole-heartedly. Mac’s vocalizations reached a new plane of need as he licked and teased that sensitive strip of flesh between testes and anus.

By force of his own facial anatomy, he was exploring his intended target before his mouth even got there. Every time he made a downwards lick along Mac’s perineum, the tip of his nose nudged that hidden, tight rose of muscle that Methos had so rarely explored. And every time that beak he called a nose did so, Mac grunted like he’d taken a punch…or a direct shot of ecstasy to his most vulnerable center.

Mac loosed a piercing scream when his tongue finally found that spot.

Taking in Mac’s wild state of arousal, Methos did his level best to drive his friend straight into the stratosphere. It wasn’t a long trip. He’d barely rimmed Mac when the man was whimpering, slick preseminal fluid leaking from the tip of his cock like blood from a wound. The sounds his companion was emitting had that quality of pained delight to them, like if things didn’t move soon, this dazzling pleasure might bleed over into agony.

Methos hesitated. Moving things along entailed entering territory he’d only ventured into once or twice before. His tongue had slicked that steamy entrance as much as it could. More stimulation was going to require something more momentous than mere rimming. But…it wasn’t like he was a complete stranger to this land, Methos reminded himself. Mac had accepted his fingers here before, insinuating them again wouldn’t be an unforgivable liberty.

Methos reached out to snag the balsam-scented massage oil from the nightstand, making certain he caught Mac’s eye as he did so.

“All right?” he grated out. Recognizing that he might just have well have voiced the request in ancient Babylonian, for all his partner appeared to comprehend it, he added some firmness to his tone, “Duncan, okay?”

Blinking, as though startled to find that there still was a world around him and he existed somewhere other than inside the sensual delight of his flesh, Mac grunted out something that might have been, “Yes.”

“Yes to what?” Methos questioned, his own controls too chancy to risk making any decisions here.

“Just…yes….” Mac moaned.

Like that was a help, Methos fretted. He knew Mac was out of his head at the moment. A court of law would never certify the Highlander in his right mind…and Methos didn’t want to make the kind of mistake here that a court of law would be needed to clear up.

So, he opened the massage oil, slathered his right middle and index fingers with it, dribbled some down the steamy, marvelous crack that was the focus of his universe at the minute, took a deep breath, that in no way calmed him and reached out a quivering finger for that dark budded opening.

It was like plunging into pure nirvana, Methos thought, his breath catching as that virgin channel blossomed around him, sucking him in instead of trying to repel him. There was no sense to the way his body lit up at the insertion of a single finger an inch or so into his lover’s body. Methos’ cock had pierced others and brought him less joy. Just knowing that it was Duncan opening around him and letting this small part of him in made it all unbearably intense.

But Methos persevered, teasing his way further and further in till he came to that round nub that was his own favorite means of attaining an alternate sense of reality. With the utmost care, he pressed against that precious spot. Mac bucked under him, loosing the most shiversome groan.

A maestro at this art, Methos played that one note symphony until Mac was mindless with want. Only then did he slip a second finger in. Though probably not even noteworthy of an historical footnote anywhere outside of the MacLeod Chronicles, Methos still felt like he’d just conquered Everest.

Finding that two definitely doubled the pleasure, Methos took his time, accustoming Mac’s body to the wider bulk, scissoring his fingers open, widening Mac to the most possible extension…for an act he hadn’t permission to perform.

Sobbing in frustration, Methos slowly slid his fingers out. Wrapping them around that meaty cock, he had started to guide it to his mouth, when Mac’s hand intercepted him.

“No,” Mac rasped.

“What?” He was too strung out for his normal patience. It had been so long since they’d touched with this kind of passion that it was all he could do to hold himself together.

Mac’s fingers reached out to undo the pony tail at he back of his head, letting the disorderly hair fall around his shoulders. His lover stroked the annoyingly long locks back from his cheek and quietly said, “No more putting things off, Methos. All right?”

All right? It was like asking a drowning man if oxygen would be to his liking. But….

Once things progressed to a certain point, there would be no turning back. He wanted to take Mac for the first time on a night when he had some self-control, not their first real time alone together when he was bouncing off the walls, his emotions totally out of whack.

“Maybe…maybe we should wait…” Methos stammered.

He’d thought MacLeod too far gone for any true emotional clarity, but Duncan framed his cheeks, his gaze hot, but understanding as he whispered, “If you think there’s ever gonna be a time I’ll need you more, you’re mistaken. Now, Methos, please?”

This possibly the last thing he could ever envision Duncan MacLeod begging him for, Methos tried to swallow around the Gibralter-sized lump in his throat and nodded.

Hit with an unmistakable case of stage fright, Methos returned his fingers to that sweet opening. He expected Mac to tense up, now that it was for real, but his friend just lay there with his legs widely extended, watching Methos’ face with a hunger that was only adding to his nervousness.

Methos had never felt under such pressure. If he mucked this up, he could damage their relationship forever. So…he would be damn sure he got it right. That was all there was to it.

His fingers slipped back inside, priming Mac with a patience he’d believed beyond himself. Methos worked until he felt he could get his entire fist up his friend if he had to before he withdrew this time.

Taking a deep breath, he met Mac’s passion-dazed gaze. He’d wanted to suggest an easier position, but…the way MacLeod was observing him, Methos could tell his lover was getting as much stimulation from the visual as the sensual input. Honoring that need, Methos recognized that he was just going to have to keep himself very firmly in check.

Right. He was going to have the kind of control to do this properly the first time they’d made uninhibited love in more than a year, at a time when Methos could barely go half a day without bawling over something or the other. But that was what he was going to have to do.

He couldn’t remember a time he was so frightened in a sexual situation as the moment he finally he pressed his cock-head against that slick sphincter muscle.

Both he and Duncan drew a deep breath at the same instant. Their gazes locking, Mac nodded.

Methos gave the slightest push forward, just enough to get his tip through that suddenly, incredibly tiny passageway. He heard the gasp Mac gave, felt the instinctive tensing around him, but he was prepared for it. His hand found that powerful shaft and pumped it to straining fullness. As those more familiar pleasures flooded Mac’s system, Methos felt the tract around him loosen up.

Thinking that maybe this might work after all, Methos slid that much further into his lover…and groaned in despair as he felt that energy conduit that Cassandra had named the Forging open up between them.

He wasn’t ready for this. He couldn’t simultaneously deal with it and penetrating Duncan for the first time.

“No,” Methos sobbed, trying to pull back from it, but he couldn’t because it was as much a part of him as his cock was. And it was buried even deeper in MacLeod’s body than that eager organ would ever go.

“It’s okay,” Mac croaked, his enjoyment of the experience seeming amplified by the arrival of their freaky connection. “Don’t fight it. Please….”

He was putting his cock up the man’s virgin ass. Mac could have asked for his head at that point and Methos would have gladly handed him his katana. But…this was harder. There was still so much he hadn’t discussed with Duncan, the inappropriate liberties he had taken after their daily massage session for starters, but Mac seemed eager for the union and…how could he refuse the man, just three days back from the walking dead?

So for once, Methos didn’t even haggle over it. Bracing himself, he lowered his defenses and let Mac plunge into him on a psychic level, the way he was entering Duncan on the physical plane. The usual expanding of the senses to two skins came first, but Mac seemed frantic to touch his emotions and mind and accelerated the blending.

As the intimacy increased, his cock shriveled inside Mac as terror clenched him up in a manner Duncan’s untouched body should have been reacting, but wasn’t.

And Duncan reached out for him like he had that last night on the barge after Longford’s challenge, instinctively mastering the intricacies of this contact. Where the reassurance came from, Methos didn’t know, for the instant they touched, he could sense that Mac wasn’t his usual certain self. Methos was stunned by how much fresh sorrow the spirit that touched his carried.

Mac’s pain luring him out of his own insecurities, Methos cast a questioning feeling his lover’s way. The guilt there…he could have been touching his own soul. Mac had kept it to himself until Methos sent out that query, but the instant Methos asked for it, Duncan’s barriers crumbled. Ritchie’s death came through first, as an impotent, raging, kind of guilt. But Methos sensed that there was something troubling Duncan even more below that. When he looked, he found it to be his own depleted state that was hurting Mac as his guilt-prone lover took responsibility for the ravages this dark period had made on Methos’ flesh.

Appalled to be part of that pain, Methos drew Mac in closer, letting him see that it really didn’t matter, that he could have lost a pound of flesh, a limb or his balls again and he would have counted it worthwhile, as long as they ended up together in the end.

Lulled by the ability to offer some form of solace to his recently healed love, Methos relaxed ever so slowly. His whole being turned into the emotional equivalent of a smile when he felt MacLeod’s joy as Methos’ cock expanded within him again.

Taking Mac on the physical plane and simultaneously dealing with this psychic link lent a surreal quality to the entire experience. Methos could feel the energy of the Forging sparking around them in the bedroom in the remembered faux Quickening.

How can you not fear this, Methos thought. He hadn’t intended it to, but the question spilled over into their link, and he heard/felt MacLeod’s spontaneous reply,

Because it’s you.

The degree of trust Mac bore him was mind-boggling. Their recent side trips into Methos’ past having reminded him how dangerous it was for anyone to love him, Methos wanted to scream, don’t trust me so, and, of course, the moment he thought it the thought was there for Duncan to see. And when the inevitable why was issued in return, Methos was placed in the awkward position of having to block or lie…or do the unthinkable and allow Mac to see everything.

Methos could feel his lover watching him wrestle his demons. That night after Longford, it was here that MacLeod had taken the reins and forced the issue. Methos tensed, waiting for that to happen again, but Mac remained in that surface level of initial contact, allowing Methos to make the decision.

Feeling how much Duncan really wanted to touch him that deeply, Methos almost balked. He didn’t know how far even Duncan’s acceptance could be pushed. In some ways, when Mac had taken those memories of Death from him, it had been easier, for Methos truly had been an entirely different man back then. But to show Mac how the Methos he thought trustworthy had betrayed Artos and led sweet Miche?l to his death…and then to have Duncan learn that MacLeod himself had been these men in another turn of the wheel of life…how could he expect Duncan to understand any of that? How could Mac possibly continue to love him after seeing all that? And he hadn’t even addressed the impropriety of touching Mac without his permission after those massage sessions….

Cold with fear, ready to just throw in the towel completely, Methos’ distracted mind caught hold of a thought/feeling that Mac clearly hadn’t intended to share. It was flavored with the same loathsome self-doubt Methos was gripped with, but all the more touching because Duncan had no true cause to doubt himself. Yet there it was, the most agonizingly intense what more can I possibly give to make him trust me feeling Methos had ever experienced.

Feeling all the hurt Duncan had been struggling to rise above these last three days pounding at his lover behind the bitterest one that he’d caught, Methos felt as though his entire being might crumble. It was one of those damned if you do, damned if you don’t conundrums that added up to what everything in Methos’ life normally did…he was damned.

If he let Mac in, his friend would lose all respect for him, because he couldn’t blame any of these errors on his alter ego. It was just Methos mucking his life up royally as usual, destroying everyone who’d ever been foolish enough to love him.

But if he didn’t let Mac in, Duncan was going to believe that he didn’t trust him. He would be rejecting his lover while the man was gifting him with his virginity. It didn’t get much lower than that.

Given the choice of whom to hurt, Methos made the only decision possible. He lowered his barriers and let that uncertain man come tumbling over.

It was a lot to take in. Methos offered up his most recent indiscretion first, showing Mac how he’d fellated him after their daily massage. But, to his astonishment, Mac didn’t brand him a fiend or molester. There was something like laughter and the mental echo of the only bright spot in the day, with all merriment cutting off abruptly when Methos showed Mac the path this strange connection had taken. Duncan’s shock as Methos detailed the progression of lives he’d witnessed playing out was a palpable presence. When Methos came to the point where he himself showed up in Mac’s memories of Michél, Duncan seemed stunned beyond thought.

The last was the hardest. Artos, the king of kings, whom Cassandra claimed to have been Duncan as well -- a fact that Methos’ soul acknowledged as truth. He almost didn’t show Mac that, but…once started, he wanted it all out there. If Mac were going to leave him, he might as well know it all. So he let Duncan see how he’d betrayed Artos and brought civilization in his beloved Wales crashing down around them.

And then…Methos took the equivalent of a mental step back and just waited to see what form the inevitable rejection would take, fleeing almost all the way back to his own body and mind.

There was too much of the coward in him to even try to follow Mac’s thought processes. He could sense his friend trying to absorb it all. Stars knew, it was more than any one soul should carry.

Methos was prepared for anything, except, of course, what happened. Tears…how often had he seen this man cry?

At first, he panicked, believing that he’d hurt Mac too much…but then those strong arms were holding him closer and Duncan was begging to be let in again through the Forging…and his own body was supercharged by the burst of sheer, unadulterated love that rocked through him…and he was inside Duncan taking him, or may Duncan was inside him, taking him…Methos didn’t know and it no longer mattered because….

Because he was finally home. Their love might be ended with a headhunter’s sword, but if Duncan could still love and want him after seeing all that…then Methos knew they’d last.

The energies coursing through them joined and flared, as their bodies exploded in joy. Methos could see the lightning bolts flashing through their room, could feel that blended power strengthening him and Mac the way taking a head would…and more, he could feel it healing some of the hurt. It wasn’t exactly gentle, but it cauterized all those old bleeding memories and the more recent scars from the ordeal of Mac’s abduction and recovery to the point where the burden was bearable.

When the Forging passed with the cessation of their orgasms, a quiet descended between them.

His racing heart stilling, Methos lay there in the sunny bedroom and listened as his companion’s ragged breathing settled into something near normal. He couldn’t help but recall the last time they’d touched this way. He’d been so afraid of what Duncan would think of him afterwards, but today…he met his lover’s gaze almost eagerly.

Those incredible brown eyes were still bright with tears. Methos licked them away and then spent an eternity relearning every nuance and flavor of that luscious mouth.

Realizing that his flaccid cock was still half in Duncan, Methos carefully pulled out, wincing at Mac’s inevitable hiss.

“It gets easier,” Methos promised, his voice thick as Mac’s had been when he first awoken three days ago.

Not understanding the happy chuckle Mac gave, Methos asked, “What?”

“After all those months I spent agonizing over…doing it that way….” MacLeod began.

“Yes?” Methos encouraged, feeling too buoyed by their cathartic union to even feel a frisson of worry.

“The actual act was almost an anticlimax – no offense,” Mac quickly covered.

Methos smiled, his heart twisting in chest at the gift this beautiful man had just given him. “None taken. And just for the record…it didn’t feel that way from this end. It…you were sublime.”

Mac’s cheeks turned a totally charming pink as he yawned and stretched out on the bed beside him, just glowing with health and contentment.

After a minute of open snuggling, Mac looked down at him and said, “This past life stuff…it’s true?”

Methos was silent for a moment. “I don’t know about Artos, but Cassandra would have no reason to lie about it. As for Michél…I saw that myself. You had to have been there.”

No doubt recalling what he’d seen of that tragic story’s ending from Methos’ mind, a deep sorrow touched Mac’s eyes. “You loved him so much…suffered so terribly….”

“That was a long time ago, Mac.”

“What does it all mean?”

Sobering, Methos held that pained gaze and warned, ““I don’t know. All I do know is that…every time you’ve loved me, it has destroyed you.”

“Not this time,” Mac said, bending down to kiss Methos until his senses were reeling again. Glorious romantic that he was, Mac seemed touched by what he’d learned, rather than alarmed like any sensible man would be. The fire that had attracted Methos to him rallying in his exhausted eyes and tone, MacLeod proclaimed, “This time we’re gonna get it right. We’re gonna find that happy-ever-after.”

The cynic in Methos wanted to protest, but…against all odds and logic, Duncan was still in his bed, still loving him. Faced with this uncontestable miracle, who was he to doubt?

His heart lighter than he ever remembered it, Methos cuddled closer to the sleepy warmth of Duncan MacLeod and kissed the man again.

He wasn’t sure where the spin of the wheel of life would leave them this time, but…casting his sleepy sight to the future, the one thing he did clearly see was Duncan beside him. Assured of that one reality, none of the rest really mattered.

Settling down on the pillow beside his already drifting love, Methos closed his eyes to sleep the deepest sleep he’d enjoyed in more than three millennia.

The Beginning

Comment to Author

Return to Site Map