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A Deadly Virtue

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Take courage. Now there's a sport! An invitation to the state of rigor mort.

-- Lerner & Lowe, Camelot

Peace ruled in the dojo after seven-thirty or so.

The hard-core exercise fanatics came in the morning, when DeSalvo's Martial Arts opened at six, stretching and lifting weights in an intent silence broken only by the occasional, quiet 'Good morning.' Neighborhood mothers came later, around nine or so, interspersed with college students and second-shift workers, or part-time data entry folk. The lunch crowd held businessmen who worked in the area and more of the morning mix, those running late, or those who worked the late shift.

In the afternoon the young children began arriving, accompanied by whichever parent had carpool duty that day, leaving giggles and silly jokes in the quiet corners of the room. By late afternoon, the business rush began as the young and not-so-young professionals came to release the day's stresses in the concentration on heavy weights or the controlled precision of one of Duncan MacLeod's martial arts classes. By seven-thirty, though, the last of the patrons were usually gone to their homes and their dinners, leaving the sound of that one dripping showerhead in the men's locker and the sight of floors that once more needed to be swept.

Pushing the broom around, checking the towels, and locking up the papers (and single-malt Scotch) in the office--these were part of Duncan's closing rituals, something that tied off the scattered ends of his day. Methos understood his need for stillness, for completion. It was amazing how often the older man simply didn't make it back from errands or the University library until a quarter of eight or later. Sometimes the Scot would go up to the apartment and find that Methos had already come in and started dinner without disturbing Duncan downstairs. Not because he wanted to dodge his lover, Mac knew, but because Methos wanted that peace for Mac almost as much as the Highlander cherished his lover's thoughtfulness in encouraging it.

So the sense of Immortal presence that spilled over him just after the last student left was, understandably, a surprise. The Scot pulled his katana and turned. The spill of moon and streetlight against the brick and glass wall of the dojo created patterns of shadow across the floor; Duncan instinctively stepped into the light. In a clear, resonant voice he called, "I'm Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. Declare yourself."

A soft, silky tenor replied, "Are you, indeed? I'm not here for either of the MacLeods, although your reputation does precede you. I'm known as Farouk al Yusuf."

Duncan answered warily, "And if you didn't expect me, what are you doing here?"

"Merely looking for someone. One of us. Would you know of any others in the city? I'd heard rumors that made me believe you might be able to help me."

The other man had not emerged from the shadowed hallway, and Mac hoped that Methos didn't pick this moment to come see what was keeping him. "There are a few of us around and about. It would depend on who you're looking for, wouldn't it?"

"There was a woman, once, from well before your birth, Highlander. I remember her light-dappled in Spain, red hair lit by the sun, pale eyes always watching everything, with a wit as sharp as her blade. Teresita they called her then, although that name hasn't been used among us in quite a while. A few inches shorter than you, she was, slender, and she always wore a crystal pendant. Do you know her?"

The man's tone caressed his description with a lascivious note that narrowed Duncan's eyes. Nothing in that voice spoke of caring, of friendship, or any of half a dozen other, lighter emotions. Instead, lust colored the sound, and cloying possessiveness, and a charnel foulness--old buried bones, stale blood, and the cold, metallic sweat of fear. Then realization snapped into place. That description fit Rebecca Horne perfectly.

Duncan drew a slow, controlled breath to center himself and answered calmly, "No, I don't know anyone named Teresita. But then, I don't know anyone named Farouk, either. Would I know you under another name, perhaps?"

Soft, deadly laughter filtered across the room. "Oh, perhaps, Highlander. I have heard of you and of your kinsman, Connor. All have said that you hold to honor and fair value in a bargain--an admirable trait, that last. So I will give you an answer for an answer. Fair enough?"

"Aye, it is." Duncan waited cautiously. He knew that he wouldn't like whatever this 'Farouk' wanted to ask, but the Highlander needed information on this strange Immortal in his city.

"I'm best remembered as Sinan ibn Salman ibn Muhammad of Medina and other places. And my question to you, Highlander, is this: do you know the whereabouts of the woman who fits that description? Regardless of what name she may have given you."

"Aye, Sinan, I know where she can be found."

"I thought you might. Where is she, MacLeod?" He edged into the entranceway, allowing Duncan to see his features for the first time.

The man partially revealed by the light surprised Duncan a little. The Scot had expected him to be...larger? There was so little of him to contain such tightly leashed passion. Black hair, dark, tanned skin, a medium build in the shadows, nothing spectacular to him in size or height, only an animal quickness to his pace.... Then the Highlander saw those black eyes, and his deepest instincts warned him that this man was perilous.

Cold, calculating, unmoved by weakness, either physical or emotional, Sinan's eyes were truly the window to his soul. This was a man who would watch unperturbed as a thousand children were thrown to their deaths, who would have helped seal the doors on the gas chambers at Auschwitz and watched dispassionately, taking notes on their deaths.

And this man wants to get his hands on Rebecca. A familiar, dangerous rage wrapped around his thoughts, coiling along his nerves and flexing through his hands. Duncan's arms tensed with the need to shift and strike, to begin what had become inevitable. No, Sinan, Rebecca is dead and can't face you. But I can.

"Challenge, Sinan."

The condescending smile on the Arab's face was an attempt to goad the younger man. "Oh, come, Highlander. I'm not here for her head or yours. I just want my regards. I haven't seen her in ages."

"And here I thought you wanted her address," Duncan said softly, his voice a menacing purr.

"Her address, yes. But not your head. Where is she, Highlander?"

"Holy Ground, in Paris." A feral smile tugged at Duncan's lips; the pleasure in his eyes was that of a panther crouched on a branch above an unsuspecting dinner. "You said you wanted to visit her, Sinan. Changing your plans so soon?"

Black eyes studied him dispassionately; finally, the Arab frowned. "Holy Ground, MacLeod? Or a cemetery?"

"They're not mutually exclusive."

"No, I suppose they aren't. And you have her Quickening."

Duncan could tell that his slow, smug smile and the lordly inclination of his head irritated Sinan as thoroughly as they were meant to. Duncan stepped to one side, circling between the other Immortal and the door. "I do. Tomorrow morning, Sinan, at the old lighthouse an hour out of town. If you want her Quickening that badly, you can try to get it."

"Why should I? Do you think me fool enough to fall into your trap?" Sinan stretched, a lithe, contemptuous motion from a body that looked to be five or six years older than Duncan, but was probably more along the lines of six centuries his senior.

Duncan smiled viciously at him, stepping nearer to watch the other man's grace as Farouk shifted away, unwilling to close the distance between them.

Immortal presence poured across both of them, the feeling as familiar to Duncan as his own heartbeat. Methos was on the outside stairs, listening. Sinan had no such comfort; he moved, cat-quiet, ferret-swift, to get his back to a wall.

Duncan's accent slid toward the burr of his homeland as he purred, "You can be there, or I'll find you, Sinan. And if you run too well, I'll see who else might be interested to know your quarry. Someone will find you."

A cold, measured voice spoke from the doorway beyond Sinan. "Were you to refuse his challenge--Sinan, is it?--I would have to issue one of my own. And if you turn your back on me, I'll cut you down like the cur you are." Methos stood there, broadsword out, his face as unyielding as Duncan's.

"Two of you? Interesting. The fabled honor of the MacLeods..."

Duncan cut him off, still purring, "...learned logic, Sinan. I'll follow the Rules as precisely as you. No less--but no more. Do you accept the challenge?"

"Not in the morning. There is an alley behind this building. Shall we? All this over a woman whose head I'm not even after." Sinan paused as he saw Duncan's face harden into stone.

"No, not her head," came the chilled reply. "What, Sinan? What did you mean to take from Rebecca Horne?"

Methos spoke softly, venom just under his quiet tone. "Why don't you tell the story, Sinan? You love the sound of your own voice, and it might delay the inevitable."

"Adam. No. I'll tell you later."

"Will you, MacLeod? You have no concept of what Teresita was to me, no true understanding of why I must see her again." The scorn in his voice pricked at the Scot as it was meant to, but not so well as Sinan had hoped.

The pale, slender man on the stairs smiled. "All you have to do is walk outdoors with him, Sinan, and you'll see Rebecca much sooner than you expected. Unless you want to fight me?"

"MacLeod claimed the first fight. I'll get to you next." Sinan didn't understand the feral smile the two men exchanged, but evidently they were more confident in Adam's ability than he was. That alone told him it was time to escape, and he turned his mind to evasions and the perfect time at which to flee. As Sinan moved toward the stairs, another Immortal presence wove through the air, and he remarked sarcastically, "Well, well, is this a convention then?"

The young red-headed man standing behind Adam looked in to see who the visitor was. "I take it this is not a friend, guys?"

"MacLeod's got dibs, Ryan. We're just here for the show."

"I see the Highlander is in charge here. How...interesting." Sinan kept pricking and goading, cold and deliberate as ever. Three Immortals, and no way out except through them; his only hope was to push and press until they gave way somehow. The red-head looked to be the weakest link, with his every change of emotion showing on his face. "Whose student is he? He doesn't look old enough to be in the Game."

The newcomer--Ryan?--rolled his eyes. "One of these days someone's going to try an original insult. Let me save you the trouble of the next question. Yes, I do have to shave, once a day, thanks. Any other questions about my personal hygiene?"

"Enough, Sinan," MacLeod growled, never taking his eyes off him. "I challenged. You'll fight me now, in the alley, but they're out of it."

Sinan laughed. "Fighting over me? How amusing. But by all means, MacLeod, I'll be happy to fight you--after your young pup there."

"Uh-uh," Ryan said, shaking his head and backing down the stairs. "And have to listen to him sulk and brood afterwards? Not a chance. He wants your head, he gets it. I'm just here to mooch pizza and beer, if Adam leaves any beer."

Adam stepped back and down carefully, keeping his eyes on Sinan. "Sinan ibn Muhammed, by any chance?"

"I see my reputation precedes me. What a pity, Highlander, I should never have given you my name if your friend knows it."

"Yes, well, some of us study history. Be careful, MacLeod, he was the head of the Assassins in the 1200's." Adam dropped his arm, hiding his blade in the folds of his coat for the walk to the alley. "You'll clean your blades before the fight, Sinan. I'll give you the cloth."

"Combat is sacred to Allah," Sinan answered coldly. "I would not sully my blade and my honor in the Game."

MacLeod threw him a towel casually. "Then you won't mind doing this."

Cold, dark eyes clashed against an equally cold brown gaze, then Sinan nodded once. "In the alley, MacLeod. Come along, Highlander, it's a good night to die."

"There's no such thing, Sinan. But this one will do." MacLeod waved a hand at Sinan, indicating the stairs. "Shall we?"

"Inshallah," the one-time assassin replied mockingly as he started down the stairs to the alley, staying as far away from the other two Immortals as possible. Sinan snarled and snapped at himself silently, all too aware he had killed himself through stupidity.

Who would have thought that there could be three Immortals in one space without bloodshed? Teresita believed that Immortals could be friends, but I thought that at worst there would be one or two others in the same city, certainly not in the same place. Fool, overconfident dog of an imbecile. In my mortal days I would never have been so rash.

Sinan reached out toward the young redhead with one hand as he walked past, but Adam's broadsword swung up between the two of them. The Arab paused in mid-motion, having nearly brought his wrist down on the razor-sharp edge of the blade, and turned his mocking smile toward the pale man. The contained, ancient menace in those young, gold-green eyes froze him. In Arabic, the assassin murmured, "Who are you? Why do I not know your name?"

The smile that curved Adam's face never reached his eyes as he answered softly in the same language. "You do. I'm Death. Did no one tell you?"

"What an interesting claim. And should I bow before you, then?" He lowered his hand slowly to his side to make it obvious that the warning did not impress him.

MacLeod said, "Enough, Adam. He's mine. You've had your fun, Sinan, but you wanted the back alley and right now, so let's do it."

The Arab moved down the stairs past Adam and the student, smiling at the young man to make him nervous. The boy's face never changed, much to his surprise. So the older Immortals were teaching him control as well. A pity. If this day were to end with his own death, as the assassin suspected, it would have been pleasant to have taken the memory of the boy's terror with him. Inwardly, Sinan raged that he had not been able to complete the cycle of years by repeating Teresita's torture. She had ensured him a thousand years of luck last time. This time, it seemed, Allah did not will it.

The three men followed behind, but it didn't worry him. MacLeod's word would hold; Sinan had no need to fear for his head until the battle began. Interesting, indeed, that this man who called himself Death held himself constrained by the Highlander's will. The Four Horsemen were only drug-induced ravings of a Christian zealot, though. Surely this young Immortal could not be foolish enough to make himself such a target by claiming that degree of age and power.

Sinan appraised the alley thoughtfully, although he had checked earlier to ascertain its suitability for possible combat. When he turned back to make a request of MacLeod, the assassin paused in surprise; a fourth man had walked into the alley, leaning on a cane.

MacLeod glanced over to see what had caught his eye. He smiled, apparently thawing for the first time since forcing this challenge. "Joe. You're early for dinner. Should you really be here?"

"And miss this? Who're you kidding?" The older man nodded a greeting to Adam and asked, "Mac's fight, I take it?"

Adam shrugged calmly, never taking his eyes off Sinan. "Only because he got there first. You buying afterwards?"

Sinan found himself becoming unsettled by this casual arrogance on the part of both Immortals. Equally disturbing was the appearance of this mortal who so obviously knew exactly what was going on...and had no curiosity as to his identity? Dark eyes narrowed, and the Arab stared more intently at him. Perhaps it had been a mistake not to trace down the meaning of the tattoo that had been on the arms of those spying on him. Perhaps they had not been from the oil cartel he had annoyed after all.

The older man had cheerfully answered while being studied, although the level gaze directed at Sinan told the Arab he knew damn well what kind of thoughts the Immortal was having. "Me, buy for you? How much do you owe me already? Now, Mac I'll buy for. Hell, I'll get him a case when this bastard goes down."

Sinan said mildly, "My mother was second wife, but married, nonetheless, according to the dictates of Allah, merciful is His name. Do you have some grudge against me?"

The mortal answered, "You're breathing, and you have your head."

Ryan stared at the grey-haired man in surprise. "What did he do to you?"

"Killed half-a-dozen good friends of mine, Rich. I got a new shipment of Laophraig in this morning, knew I ordered it for some reason." He glanced at the other two Immortals and shook his head. "Don't tell me you two are getting in line?"

"Nah, just here to pick up pointers," Ryan answered cheerfully. "Besides, someone has to keep an eye on you, Joe."

"I figured someone ought to get MacLeod back upstairs when this is over," Adam said sardonically. "Better me than the kid. I'll kill him if I have to."

"Thanks so much." With a quick jerk of his chin, MacLeod indicated the towel still held in Sinan's hand. "Go on and use that, why don't you?"

The assassin pulled his scimitar and draped his coat across a dumpster. He ran the towel over the blade carefully, then threw it to Adam. "As I said, it would be an offense against Allah." The cloth fell to the ground between them, still white and unstained under the streetlights.

"We're none of us perfect," the slender Immortal said implacably. "I don't think I'll apologize for being suspicious, assassin."

"Let's get on with this, shall we? Ready, Sinan?" MacLeod spun his sword a couple of times and settled into a defensive stance with one shoulder leading.

"A moment to pray, since you have offered." Sinan could see that his answer to the Highlander's question was a surprise. The assassin faced toward Mecca (east and south from here, he knew) and offered the call to Allah. There was no place to wash, no prayer rug on which to make his obeisance, but Allah was great and would understand that no warrior would kneel with such unprincipled opponents nearby. The Scot could be trusted; the others...

Duncan waited patiently, despite his surprise. He had never expected that Sinan would be devout, although Methos had been at great lengths to force him to quit anticipating things from his opponents. Reverence from an assassin? He wouldn't be the first. Hair rose on the back of the Highlander's neck and forearms as memories of Ingrid spun through his mind. She had killed for a greater good, too.

Sinan stood and nodded once to the younger Highlander, then attacked in utter silence, his scimitar catching the light. Duncan caught the blow on his katana and threw it off to one side, body twisting in a vain attempt to dodge the kris the other man had pulled out in the rush. The slender, flame-curved blade sliced deeply under his lowest rib, rending his sweater and dying the tan cotton sanguine.

The Scot laughed harshly, a sound with no humor in it, and came back around with an underhand blow which forced Sinan back and away. "First blood to you, assassin. But it's last blood that counts." Duncan launched half a dozen attacks as he spoke, a blurring figure-eight pattern which forced Sinan back and away down the alley.

The smaller man fought like Consone, Duncan realized. Slashing sword attacks hid the more vicious dagger strikes, and he fought with a swift, evasive precision that the Spanish Immortal had forced the Scot to learn to cope with. Coldly, deliberately, compensating for the paired weapons with the skill of long practice, Duncan set himself to kill the assassin.

Joe stood by Methos and watched the fight, inwardly appalled at the raging viciousness in Mac's body language and fighting style. All he allowed himself to say was, "Mac's pissed, huh?"

"Yes, he is," came the cold, clipped answer. Methos never took his eyes off the fight, following both MacLeod's attacks and Sinan's responses to them. Mac ought to win this, but if he didn't, Joe suspected the assassin would never stand up from the Quickening.

"Any idea why?" the Watcher asked, from both personal and professional interest. He frowned when Duncan parried Sinan's sword sharply to one side and stepped back immediately to dodge the dagger following behind it. There were plenty of counters to that move; why hadn't Mac used one of them?

"Not a clue. I mean to have the story out of him when this is over. Feel free to listen in."

The iron implacability of his voice jolted Joe, and he darted a startled look at his friend. Methos' expression of frozen, rigidly controlled rage should have rung in a new Ice Age. The bluesman kept track of the fight with part of his mind as he thought about the Immortal's reaction, then spoke to what he hoped was the real problem.

"He's a grown man, you know, old buddy. Your lover, yeah, and your friend, but he's got a right to his own memories and his own grudges. You've seen him fight plenty of times before. Why are you so pissed this time?"

Thoughts spun through the Immortal's eyes almost visibly as Joe glanced at him. Some of the apparent fury eased, and Methos' answer came in a more normal voice as he watched his lover run a foot of the katana's blade through Sinan's chest, just under the collarbone. "I'm angry, Joe, because MacLeod challenged an old, unknown Immortal to protect a dead woman. Do you suppose I'm jealous of Rebecca's corpse?"

The calm self-ridicule somehow mingled perfectly with the ringing clatter of fine steel hitting concrete as Sinan dropped the scimitar from suddenly nerveless fingers. Had his other hand been empty he might have been able to catch the handgrip as it fell, but the kris slowed his reaction time too much.

Duncan used his greater size to slam the assassin against the alley wall, then stepped back as Sinan doubled over, trying to breathe from lungs momentarily paralyzed after being forcibly emptied. The Scot used a karate strike to make Sinan drop the dagger as well and yanked the other man up by the collar.

"Be glad I'm not you, Sinan. A clean death is better than you deserve," Mac said coldly.

Immortal healing let Sinan draw a breath, and he gasped, "Death is always clean, infidel. And you are weak. Had a man raped my woman, I would not let him die so easily. Teresita was yours, wasn't she?" The voice was too feeble to carry far, but Duncan heard it. In the ringing silence behind the clash of weapons, so did the others.

"No, Sinan. Rebecca Horne was always her own. That was your mistake the last time, too." Duncan set his sword against the other man's throat and drew a quick downward stroke to sever the head.

In the moment before the Quickening began, the Scot glanced over at his friends. The relief on Joe's face he had expected, but not the approval. Rich stood beside the Watcher as if to support him, but he grinned fiercely, a cocky, unspoken 'Knew you'd win.'

Methos just nodded to him, but the expression on his face was that of a warrior reclaiming a shieldmate after a battle. No relief showed yet, but the Highlander knew it was there, along with the urge to shake his lover, or hug him, or something equally violent. The Quickening crashed down, then, and rational thought vanished.

Joe watched, appalled, as lightning struck at MacLeod again and again. No matter how often he witnessed Quickenings, and as Mac's Watcher he saw plenty, there was still something awe-inspiring about it. All that light and sound and power, battering at the surviving Immortal as if the dead man were raging one last time against the unfairness of it all in effects borrowed straight from Dykstra and Lucas and Spielberg.... To see it seething around people who quibbled over favorite beers or Scotch reminded him again of just how different his friends were, yet how alike, as well.

Methos was standing well back, although he was obviously holding himself still with an effort. Only when the lightning subsided, sliding into MacLeod's skin and vanishing, did the older Immortal move forward to catch him before he could fall.

The Highlander pushed away violently, blindly catching himself against the brick. He braced his back against the alley wall, katana dangling limply from one hand while he rubbed at that arm with the other hand, apparently to warm himself. Dark hair stood out against red brick where he had his head tilted back, eyes closed.

Methos studied the body language, seeing the hunched shoulders and the muscle jumping along the jaw. With the practice of centuries, he controlled his anger, putting it aside for the moment in the face of more important considerations. Moving slowly, he leaned in and asked, "All right?"

"Not really. I haven't felt this filthy after a Quickening since..." Duncan dropped the topic, unwilling to give the name, and pulled away from the extended arm without ever opening his eyes.

"Since Caspian?" Methos finished for him, feeling the Highlander's emotions across the empathic link they had shared off and on since the double Quickening in Bordeaux. Usually it was more off than on, but tonight it seemed to be open in full force, whether the Scot wanted it or not. "They'd have gotten along until Sinan decided Caspian wasn't sane enough to suit him."

Deliberately, the older Immortal stepped forward and wrapped both arms around the Highlander before he could retreat again. "And you're not filthy, and it's not contagious. Come upstairs. A shower will help, and so will dinner."

Duncan tensed under his arms, then relaxed against his lover almost convulsively, shaking despite his best efforts. Head buried against the other man's shoulder, he muttered, "You might want to take the katana. I don't need a weapon for a little while, this one's...rough."

Methos rubbed his back comfortingly with one hand and reached for the sword with the other. With one apparently casual step he twisted them so that Joe and Rich couldn't see Duncan's face. Still trying to soothe his lover, the older man began speaking quietly to him in Gaelic. Nothing serious, nothing profound, just Duncan's name and the year, where they were, who they loved, all designed to help the younger man hold his sanity against the scattershot memories shivering through his mind as this latest Quickening settled into place. Methos played on every button he had learned over the years, including the Highlander's tactile nature and the fact that he was incredibly susceptible to the sound of his given name.

Joe finished calling one of the other Watchers for some help with the body (and, he suspected, to start a quiet party in a few Watcher offices now that Sinan was dead) and made some mental notes. God knew Mac usually coped pretty well with Quickenings, largely due to Scottish stubbornness and Highlands stamina, but this one was obviously hitting him hard. Methos seemed to have it under control, at least. The 5K Immortal, as Rich insisted on referring to him, coaxed Duncan up to the loft as Joe watched.

After this one, the bluesman was looking forward to a drink himself. Instead, he and Rich compared the finer points of moving a body out of sight. Joe cheerfully regaled the young redhead with stories of some of the more inventive ways other Immortals had been known to deal with the problem of an inconvenient corpse, calling on details learned from the Chronicles of some of Mac's friends and enemies.

Rich took his suggestions cheerfully, saying, "You know, I always thought love at first sight was a myth. But if you can have loathing at first sight, hey, why not the reverse? And I thought I'd seen scum on two legs before!"

Joe nodded his head in agreement. "Yeah, he was something. You want to fill me in? What happened that I came over for dinner and found Mac killing a guy on the Watcher's Most Wanted list? Well, if we had one."

Rich chuckled. "Hey, do the Watchers have something like Crimestoppers? A toll-free number to call in and be assigned a number? I can hear it now: '$10,000 for swords leading to the decapitation of this man.'" He scooped up Sinan's sword and dagger, examining the quality of the metal reflexively, then turned to give Joe the story he wanted, or as much of it as the young Immortal knew.

Methos slammed down the grate on the elevator and pointed the Highlander toward the shower. Duncan shivered, then managed to say, "I shouldn't have left Joe and Rich...." The thickening Scottish accent was always a reliable distress indicator on Mac, although Methos hadn't really needed confirmation of the feelings he was catching across their linked Quickenings.

Rather than let his lover's overdeveloped conscience start up, Methos dragged him toward the bathroom. "You need to get clean; they can take care of the body. Come on, Highlander, I'll get your back for you. Nothing will catch fire in the kitchen before they get up here."

The oldest Immortal set the katana inside the bathroom door and started the water in the shower to let it heat up. Quickly peeling out of his own shoes and clothes, he stripped Duncan's clothes off matter-of-factly with none of the teasing touches and foreplay they so often used. Only then did Methos push him gently into the water.

When MacLeod shivered under the deluge and reached out to turn up the hot water, Methos frowned. Even Immortal healing couldn't cope with that temperature, and Mac's skin quickly flushed bright red. The older Immortal turned the temperature down before they could be scalded, watching Mac cautiously. Usually it's the Boy Scout soothing me against nightmares. At ten times his age, I should be able to handle one distraught lover.

"Open your eyes, Mac. Pay attention to where you are, not to what Sinan was." It took longer than Methos would have liked before brown eyes focused on the here and now; he sighed silently in relief when his lover finally returned to the present day. Shower spray pounded on Mac's back and shoulders as he leaned against the shower wall, head propped on crossed forearms, as Methos applied shampoo first, then soap, with the impersonal touch of a massage therapist. The overwrought muscles responded to his touch by first relaxing, then winding tight again.

Methos kept a close eye on the other man's reactions, frowning in concern at how much trouble this Quickening was giving him. Duncan was usually more than stubborn enough to fight off any personality he took in, Jim Coltec having been a noticeable exception. Without warning, the Scot slammed a fist against the tiled wall of the shower, scraping his hand badly. Blood ran pink under the water for the brief seconds it took the wound to heal, but he drew a shuddering breath and relaxed his hand again, palm flat against the wall.

Tight muscles jumped under Methos' touch, a convulsive tension released deliberately, only to gather again as soon as the Scot wasn't paying attention. The younger man's hands clenched into fists then opened again, and the involuntary motions of his hips would have been incredibly arousing to Methos if Mac had some control over his reactions. As it was, he knew perfectly well that the Scot was fighting off arousal and an almost overwhelming urge to throw someone down and screw their brains out.

Oh, right, like it would be a good idea for him to go out front and grab Rich or Joe as the nearest warm body? Although the look on Rich's face, Methos chuckled to himself. The boy would probably break his best hundred-yard sprint heading for the nearest window, and forget the fire escape ladder! Right, time to do something about this, before things get badly out of to speak.

The older Immortal reached for the lube, shaking his head in momentary amusement at the memory. After the last time they didn't make it to the bed, the Boy Scout had stocked the tube in the shower, 'just in case.' Methos popped open the bottle and dropped it in the soap dish, then pushed Mac out of the way of the water, toward the corner of the shower stall.

Methos swiftly wrapped one hand around the younger man's painfully erect cock, deliberately twisting his grip to stroke calluses across the silky flesh in his grip. The fingernails of his other hand raked down between Mac's shoulder blades, along his back, then around and across his ribs.

The combination drew a choked noise. Memories continued to flash through Duncan's mind: dry heat and red blood, screams which echoed hollowly off cool stone.... Reality shifted again, and for a moment the tiles under his hand reminded him of a bathhouse in Jerusalem to which he'd never been, and Duncan knew that if he only glanced back, the hands on him belonged to a dark-haired young boy with the most incredible... Time and place were slipping in and out of place, demanding too much of his concentration, and centuries of fragile, mortal lovers had made him wary of letting go in the aftermath of a Quickening. "Methos, don't. I can't..." The words cut off when the older man bit down on the back of his neck.

Duncan growled something inarticulate in protest, wanting to stop his lover while he still had some control over his desires. The skilled hand on his cock continued to move, setting off irregular, intoxicating waves of pleasure that gave him no chance to protest further, no pattern to anticipate and try to counter. Methos was simply too good at driving him mad under the best of circumstances, and that grip stole any will to fight this, alternating as it did between nearly too tight and feather-light teases that pulled the younger man's hips forward after his fingertips.

Adrenaline was still surging in his blood from the fight; the remaining blood lust that had sparked his challenge to Sinan combined with a less lethal desire in the crucible Methos was forging of his body. Fine. The old man knew what kind of fire he was playing with. Duncan growled and turned to trap the other man in his arms, kissing him fiercely.

The Scot reached up and directed the water away from them without ever coming up from the kiss for air. He finally pulled back the millimeters necessary to separate from the soft lips under his, kissing, biting, and sucking his way down Methos' chin, along his jaw where he enthusiastically scraped his lips against what little stubble he found, and moving down along the slender, sensitive throat.

Duncan scraped thin lines along Methos' hips and ribs, feeling Methos match him nip for bite, scratch for claw. Mac's hands came up, pinning his lover's shoulders against the wall as he left a line of red marks along the paler man's collarbone. Panting noises came from Methos' half-open mouth in synch with the thrusts of hips and cock against Mac's thigh. Without looking, he knew those hazel eyes were closed, and his face tilted back into the water, deliberately leaving his throat available in hopes of having Duncan's mouth travel that way again.

Not this time, Methos. At last Mac broke away and reached for the bottle in the soap dish.

"Try not to drop it," Methos managed to say, voice breathless with passion and an undercurrent of laughter at the clichéd idea.

"You are not backseat driving on this one." Mac swatted away his lover's hands when Methos reached down to help apply the lubricant. In a husky voice, he asked, "How do you want to do this? Since you started it?"

"Oh, up against a wall, braced against the sink, although that would leave water on the floor, what..."

Duncan's mouth stopped his suggestions, nipping sharply at Methos' lower lip and then licking at the bite mark, running his free hand along his lover's straining erection. Foreplay had ceased to be an option a few seconds ago. Time tried to twist around him, the water-sleeked body under his hands almost belonging to someone else. The Highlander swiftly pulled his lover's hands onto his chest, needing the feel of calluses instead of soft, pampered flesh, and the image faded until he knew again where he was and who was with him.

Duncan reached for the lubricant as Methos shivered and turned, propping his hands against the wall and spreading his legs enough to give the younger man access to what he both desired and needed. Duncan held onto his control fiercely while he smoothed the slick stuff into his lover, trying not to think of how badly he wanted to enter him with something besides fingers. He forced the image out of his mind, violence still too close to the surface. Soon, very soon. Just a little more.

"Waiting for an engraved invitation?" Methos gasped, his own arousal spiking under Mac's ministrations. The other man had become far too skilled, too familiar with his body; it was going to drive Methos half-mad, and he hadn't been the one to take that Quickening. You're trembling, Duncan. Damn it, quit fighting this before you have no control left at all. I don't mind it rough, but I don't want to deal with unwarranted guilt later.

Duncan growled and bit at Methos' shoulder, apparently taking his unspoken advice. His fingers seemed to slide out of the older man almost reluctantly, and he set about replacing them with his cock. Methos could almost feel the control Mac was desperately clinging to as he slid inward slowly enough not to hurt, but swiftly enough to suit both of them. Methos pushed back against his thrust even as a strong hand began stroking his cock.

The older Immortal moaned as Duncan pulled back, almost leaving his body, then drove into him strongly. Again and again the Scot stroked into him, fucking Methos well and thoroughly, their fingers intertwined on the tiles. His arms and legs braced, flexed, meeting Mac force for force, both taking pleasure and giving it back to his lover. Mac's other hand never stopped, clasping Methos' cock firmly on the upstroke and trailing teasingly back down in pace with his thrusts, and Methos groaned in pleasure. Duncan bit the back of the older man's neck, the same spot where Methos had attacked him earlier, growling his pleasure against heat-flushed skin.

Desire spun back and forth between them, sparking across their linked Quickenings, feeding and doubling with each rebound until neither was conscious of anything except the feel of Duncan thrusting within Methos and the older man's movements back against him, the touch of a muscular hand on Methos' cock and balls, the taste of warm skin under someone's desperate mouth.... The orgasms spun across them, broke across self-control, before they expected it. Neither was sure which feelings belonged to whom, what thoughts, but it didn't truly matter, not under the impetus of the double set of sensations. Duncan bit down into Methos' shoulder to stifle his cry, never letting him go as both men came.

Methos somehow kept them both from dropping as their knees gave way, although the best he could manage was a controlled slide down the wall of the shower. He winced at the still-healing bite on his shoulder, but said nothing, knowing it would only set off a round of Scottish apologies and brooding. No sense in destroying the more relaxed mood he had worked so hard to ease Mac into.

Against his back, he could feel Duncan finally catch his breath. Mac sighed, a purring, gusting noise, and trailed kisses across Methos' shoulders, one hand stroking lightly along the other man's ribs in a silent thank you. He carefully withdrew from Methos' body, leaving an arm wrapped around his waist as he sprawled back against the wall.

"Are you all right?" Mac finally asked.

That drew a chuckle, and Methos stretched lazily, easing his back. "Other than living up to the old cliché of seeing stars? Certainly."

The Scot extended his arms over his head, muscles releasing at last, and sighed in relief as the Quickening finally settled. He could almost feel 'here' and 'now' solidify around him again; the foul mood melted away from him, unexpected and welcome as the vanishing of Highland mist in the early fall mornings. "What did I do before I fell in love with you?"

"I have no idea, Mac." Methos threw him a mischievous look. "Sheep, maybe?"

"Been talking to Connor again?"

The older Immortal ignored that question and stood to direct the water back toward them. Time to clean up before they went out front; Joe should only have to ignore so much, after all.

Joe and Rich heard the noises from the bathroom and rubbed their hands identically across their mouths to hide the grins. Unfortunately, they glanced at each other, and the mirror image responses set off uncontrollable laughter. No sooner did Joe start to get it under control, wiping tears from his eyes, than he made the mistake of looking at Rich and guffawed again.

Rich wrapped both arms around his ribs and resolutely didn't look in the mortal's direction as he headed into the kitchen. Dinner. Definitely dinner. Still not glancing back, determined not to start the round of laughter again, he said, "I suppose we should make sure that nothing gets too hot. On the stove, that is."

Joe continued to chuckle as he moved toward the refrigerator; after fifteen-plus years as MacLeod's Watcher, he damn well had better know where everything would be. "Coke or beer, Rich? And start some coffee, would you? I'm not as resilient as you folks, and it's cold out there."

"Whatever's up front, Joe." Rich turned, barely in time to catch the can Joe passed him, and shook his head in mock disgust. "Hey, just because I heal doesn't mean you have to beat sense into my head." He studied the beer can carefully and added thoughtfully, "Do you suppose this is where Methos picked up some of his common sense?"

"He's got some? Something got him through five thousand years, though, and it wasn't flattery, that's for damn sure."

Rich snorted in disbelief. "Right. The man's tongue is sharper than his sword, which, I might add, is really saying something. He ruined another one of my shirts yesterday. By the way, why am I making the coffee? I thought I was handling dinner."

The bluesman walked over to the bar and settled into a stool. "Just this once, pal, I'm gonna let you play bartender."

Rich glanced over at him in concern, hands falling still among the coffee and filters. "You okay, Joe?"

"Yeah, fine, Rich. Just a long day today, and I thought I was gonna get to unwind here, not Watch a fight like that."

The smile reassured Rich more than the words, although he flipped the switch on the coffee maker more forcefully than necessary. "Yeah, so did I. Does Mac just have ads out in some Immortal weekly mag, 'Want a Quickening? Call 1-800-MACLEOD.'"

Rich rooted through the kitchen, dragging out plates for the salad that seemed to be intended for dinner, bowls for the minestrone in the crockpot, and cream and sugar for the coffee which was spreading heavenly smells around the kitchen.

Joe paused in mid-reach for his mug. "Do you think they remembered to take clothes in there?"

The young Immortal finished putting butter and salad dressings on the table while he considered the question. Mac had just taken a head, and Methos had been busy dealing with the Scot's volatile mood. While Rich hadn't taken nearly as many Quickenings as the other two, he knew damn well what it did to your libido, even a weak Quickening, which Sinan's had not been.

Mac's initial, mildly embarrassed warning, later backed up by Methos, had been, "You find yourself thinking that getting laid, right here, right now, is a very good idea. It's not quite the same as drinking a six-pack and thinking anyone looks good, but trust me, sex seems like a necessity, not an option."

So, all things considered.... "You know something, Joe? I don't think they did. Are we feeling generous?"

"Of course we are. You set the table and pulled out dinner, I saw you." The Watcher grinned at him. "Besides, I want to see if Mac gets embarrassed. Just for the records, you understand. Reactions to unforeseen circumstances can tell you a lot about a person, you know?"

"He's already bare-assed," the young red-head pointed out. He had to fight down a cocky grin when Duncan did in fact emerge wearing only a towel and obviously looking for clothes.

Rich glanced over at Joe and shrugged. "Well, I was mostly right."

"Yeah," Joe agreed judiciously and a good bit more loudly than his young friend had spoken. "'Mostly' would describe how well that covered necessities. I see he's gone back to regimental dressing."

Rich raised an eyebrow, sighed, and decided he was going to be blamed for this regardless. Might as well earn the bruises he could already feel himself getting tomorrow when he and Mac had their daily sparring match. Not that bruises were anything new; the Highlander always seemed to pull out some new move he'd never seen. "Okay, Joe, what's regimental?"

Duncan called over his shoulder, "Regimental is why they shot that one scene in Braveheart from a distance, Rich." Joe snorted laughter into his coffee, and the Highlander gathered up two robes, retreating to the bathroom with as much dignity as he could keep intact under a small towel.

"Which scene?" Rich had to wait for Joe to quit trying to breathe coffee before the Watcher could explain the reference to him. By the time the redhead could quit snickering over the idea of an entire army mooning their opponents across the field of battle, the older Immortals had come out to get dinner.

Methos appropriated sweats from Duncan's dresser, pulled the drawstring tight, and stole an oversized T-shirt as well. He pulled on the new clothes without ever completely exposing himself to the others, more a concession to the cold air in the loft than to Rich and Joe's 'delicate sensibilities.' On the way to the table, he glanced at the Watcher, concerned by the other man's earlier, uncharacteristic vicious streak. "All right, Joe?"

"I'm fine, Methos. I won't ask if you are," he teased, hazel eyes dancing. "But one of you is going to have to explain to me what happened. How in hell did you end up crossing swords with the Old Man of the Mountain, Mac?"

Duncan finished pulling his ponytail out from under the sweater and settled onto a bar stool next to Joe. "Ask me after dinner, all right?" He collected a mug of coffee himself, then noticed the complete incomprehension on Rich's face.

"The what?"

Methos answered that one while he pulled out parmesan cheese to top the minestrone. "One of the heads of the original holy fanatics who coined the term assassins. Joe, wasn't Sinan the one who tried to kill Salah al-Din?"

Duncan settled bowls of food onto the table and passed out bread while the Watcher answered. "Yeah, that's him. From Ramadan to Ramadan they were after each other's throats."

Rich took the soup gratefully, but his attention was on the other men. "Wait a second, Joe. You mean Saladin? The Saladin of the Third Crusade, the one who retook Jerusalem from the Crusaders? That bastard in the alley tried to kill him?"

Mac grinned at that question. "Finally studied some of the more interesting bits of history, huh, Rich?"
Joe shushed his Immortal casually. "Hey, if you're going to gripe about his education, Mac, put a lid on it and let me educate him. Yup, that was him. Sinan nearly succeeded, too. One of Saladin's more loyal nobles threw himself in front of the knife and died for him. Saladin spent a year living in chain mail, taking it off only to bathe--and then only in absolute privacy and with a sword on the edge of the bath."

The Watcher smiled wryly. "Sounds like one of you, doesn't it? It was necessary, though. What terrified people the most about Assassins was the invisibility factor. You never knew who owed allegiance to Alamut. Some of the most trusted advisers of the day were his, in several households."

Methos nodded, remembering some of the rumors from the decades after he'd wandered back through that part of the world. "Sinan took it to extremes that would have impressed even Hassan, and Hassan founded Alamut a hundred and more years before Sinan took over."

Joe could feel the tension radiating off Mac; this might be a good time to change the topic, he decided. "I don't see it, Methos. Going after Saladin sounds like it was too personal to be effective as a reign of terror. Now, Richelieu has always struck me as perfect, impersonal power."

Methos shook his head in admiration. "He was impressive, Joe. If he'd been one of us, I'd be giving him good odds to make the Gathering. For that matter, though, for sheer ruthlessness, what about the Duke of Ch'in?"

Between them, Joe and Methos kept the discussion on historical figures for the rest of the meal, covering rulers and philosophers, artists and architects. Rich got well and thoroughly distracted by the last; after the months he'd spent helping Mac renovate a house for Anne Lindsey, architectural styles had begun to catch his eye, and he had extensive travels to call on for examples. All four of them argued vehemently about proper housing design, and Rich threatened to acquire gargoyles for the dojo to make a point.

After dinner, the Watcher offered, "Rich, you want to catch a movie?"

Rich glanced at his teacher, weighed his current finances against Mac's obvious need to finish working off tensions, and nodded. "Sounds like a good time, Joe. Tell you what, night owl, do you want to catch Rocky Horror at midnight, too?"

Methos promptly quipped, "Leave the toilet paper and the rice, Ryan. Hit a convenience store or something."

Mac asked, "Did you forget we're going running tomorrow morning? You need to build up your speed."

"What say I jog with the old-timer tomorrow afternoon instead?" Rich tried to look wistful, aware that Duncan pulled it off better than he did. The dark brown puppy eyes, maybe?

Methos shrugged. "I'll run him into the ground for you, Highlander. Not a problem."

Joe interrupted before they could get into full swing. "I think I can give him a ride home, Mac. It's not like I don't know where you live. Come on, Rich, I'll drive. It's too damn cold for a motorcycle."

Rich snapped his fingers in mock dismay. "Hell, Joe, maybe I should borrow your couch. Wouldn't want to wake up the old fogeys when I come in."

"Oh, you can stay out until dawn," Duncan replied with a wicked smile. "But you're still running with Methos tomorrow afternoon and sparring with me tomorrow night. If you want to try that on two hours of sleep, well, it won't kill you."

Methos shrugged. "The way training is getting delegated around here, I might."

Joe choked at that. The oldest Immortal calmly stated, "I trained several of my earlier students that way. Some of them are even still alive. It certainly won't hurt him permanently, and I've noticed that putting a sword through holes in someone's defense catches their attention immediately."

Rich quickly held up both hands. "Whoa. I'll be there, and I'll get some sleep. Honest. Point taken."

"See, Mac? That's how you get students to do things--offer alternatives." He ignored the dirty look from his lover and shooed Joe and Rich toward the door. "Go on, gentlemen, go see your movies."

Rich hastily passed Joe his cane. "Come on, let's get out of here before I get farther in over my head, Joe. You'd think they were trying to get rid of us or something!"

"I thought that was earlier, when they were in the shower," Joe pointed out as they left, both chuckling again.

Methos followed them to the door and locked it behind them, then pulled two more beers from the fridge. "Leave the dishes, Mac. They can wait, and we need to talk."

The shift from the old man's usual caustic irreverence to strictly controlled calm brought Duncan's head up immediately, and he set plates back on the table. "Methos? What's wrong?"

"Why don't you sit down, Highlander? This isn't going to be short, I don't think. Catch."

The amber bottle wrote a lazy arc in the air on its way to Duncan's hand. The Scot studied the drink, then his lover, but he walked over to the couch anyway. "What did I do this time?"

"Oh, nothing much," came the sarcastic reply. "Challenged a man three times your age to protect a woman who's been dead four years. Completely inconsequential, Highlander, think nothing of it. I'm sure you weren't planning to, anyway," he added viciously.

"Hold it. You think I challenged him over Rebecca?"

"It certainly sounded like it from my end, MacLeod, or did I miss something?"

"Now you complain," Duncan said incredulously. "You were right in there offering to fight him first. Joe said you had a law degree, did you chase ambulances?"

"Quit changing the subject, Highlander, you don't do it well enough. You challenged him over Rebecca Horne. She's been dead since '93 or '94, I'm sure Amanda remembers which. I had to tell you who and what he was.... What in hell were you thinking?"

"According to you, nothing." The Highlander pushed himself off the couch and stalked to the spiral stair behind it, staring out the window at street-lit emptiness. "Fine, Methos, you tell me. Why did I challenge him?"

Methos moved silently across the room and stood behind his lover. The dagger which appeared in his hand reflected almost no light. With the casual skill born of millions of hours of practice, the older Immortal set it at Mac's throat. "You are still far too trusting, Highlander," he murmured. "One day it will cost you."

The warm metal against his skin pulled a shuddering sigh out of Duncan, who tipped his head back to expose his throat even further. "You want it? Go ahead and kill me. You can't take my head when I'm asleep, you'd destroy the sheets."

"I could just destroy you."

"Too easy, Methos. Die on me."

The older Immortal felt himself freeze to a stop at that: lungs immobile, heart apparently shocked out of its next beat. Then his eyes widened, and the world lurched back into motion, taking his pulse with it. "Damn you, MacLeod; you make arguing with you damnably difficult."

Duncan never moved as the blade came away from his skin; it would be gone when he turned around, he knew. He never asked where, because in the back of his mind lurked the dread that one day Methos might need a hideout blade against him--again. The sacred spring had healed one Dark Quickening, but Duncan had never believed them possible to begin with. If it could happen once, why not twice? Why take the chance?

Methos waited out his lover's silence, grimly aware that his patience far exceeded that of the younger man. Beer vanished down that lovely dark throat in a series of swallows which redirected blood to lower portions of Methos' anatomy, and only that sound broke the silence for awhile.

Duncan turned his head, looking toward his lover without looking at him. "Methos. Why do you think I challenged him?"

"Because, Boy Scout, he wanted to harm Rebecca Horne. So you jumped in to defend the lady's honor. Never mind that she was eight times your age and dangerous with a blade while she lived, or that she now lies safely ensconced with the worms on Holy Ground. You had to set yourself between her and danger."

"Sometimes, old man, you don't know me at all, do you? No, Methos. That's not why I challenged him. Try again. Want another beer?"

"I didn't think we had an intermission for refreshments during fights."

"We're not fighting," Duncan growled, heading for the refrigerator and a fresh drink for himself. "Maybe later, if you really insist."

"Then what the hell are we doing?"

Mischief glinted in dark eyes, although Mac didn't turn around to let him see it. "Well, if you believe Joe, foreplay. Familiar with the concept, or is it past your time?"

"You are not getting out of this by seducing me," Methos snapped. Two long strides brought him to the couch; rather than go around, he went over, vaulting the back to sprawl out in his usual position. "And damn right I want a beer if it's going to take this long to get an answer. Why in hell did you challenge an unknown Immortal, MacLeod?"

"Nope." The Highlander shook his head and slid the beer across the wood table, keeping its width between himself and his lover. "You always complain that I don't think. Prove that you do, old man. Why did I challenge him?"

Methos studied him out of narrowed gold-green eyes, then a reluctant smile twitched one corner of his mouth. No one else would have seen it, but he knew that infuriating child wouldn't miss it. "What do I get out of it if I solve the riddle?"

"What do you want?"

A one-shouldered shrug answered that. "You'll do, Highlander. But I like you in one piece."

"There's no such thing as a free lunch. Figure it out on your own or no prize."

"Fine. First question, then. If protecting Rebecca wasn't your sole reason, was it any part of your challenge?"

A lazy salute with a beer bottle gave the non-verbal answer. Out loud, the Highlander added, "Indirectly? Yes. As a starting point? Definitely."

"What, Mac, he was evil and must be destroyed? Get over it. They used that theory against Carthage; it went out of date before you died the first time."

"Oh, come on, Methos. Think, damn it. At this rate, you're sleeping on that couch."

"At this rate, MacLeod, I may want to. Let's try a different game, shall we?"

"What, since you can't win this one?"

Methos settled more comfortably into the cushions, his face an impassive mask. "Let's play Jeopardy. Different Points of View for $100. How did your lover, you know, the pale chap, feel when he found out you'd challenged a thousand year old assassin?"

Duncan froze, and Methos pushed his advantage while it lasted.

"Let's try Different Points of View for $200. What kind of shock do you suppose it was to hear the world's biggest Boy Scout offering to set his Immortal friends headhunting? Am I getting your attention yet, Highlander? Do you have any idea how much I hated having to stand there and watch you fight him? You were furious, MacLeod, nearly out of control. That's a damn good way to lose your head."

"You think I fought him to protect Rebecca, that I didn't give a damn what it did to you?"

"Looks like a duck, quacks like a duck...."

Duncan rolled his eyes. "Yeah, right, and if water rolls off its back it couldn't possibly be Scotchguard. Fine, Methos, if that's what you think..."

The older Immortal pushed off the couch in one quick, violent motion, moving around the table to lean over his friend. Strong, long-fingered hands wrapped around the chair arms, trapping Duncan as surely as the green-eyed gaze. "I haven't left yet, Highlander. Fine. Tell me why you did it. And quit fucking around."

"Which reason do you want?" the Scot snapped at him. "I could kill him, Methos. No questions, no moral debates, no wondering for nights after if I attacked for my own wounded pride or to play by the rules of some damn Game that no one has won in eight thousand years. You saw his eyes, damn it."

"I've seen those eyes before, MacLeod, and the last time they were under my eyebrows."

Duncan reached up and yanked his lover down, tanned hands wrapped into T-shirt fabric until the cotton threatened to give way. "Don't give me that bullshit. That was three thousand years ago, Methos. I was butchering people in Scotland three hundred years ago. You running in terror yet?"

"I could kill you," came the soft reply.

"You could kill me any night I lay down beside you," the younger man answered huskily. "And every morning I wake up with you warm, and breathing, and wrapping yourself around me. Yes, there was a time when you were him. Actually," he murmured ruefully, releasing his grip on his lover's shirt, "I suspect you were better at it."

That drew a startled gasp which might have been laughter, but Methos controlled it too hastily for MacLeod to be sure. "Don't get a swelled head," Duncan ordered. "Do you want an answer or not? As much of one as I have to give, anyway?"

"No, I'm trapping you in a chair for no reason, Highlander. Yes, I want an answer."

"I killed him because someone needed to do it, Methos. You heard his voice, saw his eyes. For once I had a target who deserved what I could do to him. And I killed him for whatever it was he'd done to Rebecca. I didn't know the specifics when I challenged, and I wish to God that I didn't know them now, but I'm not sorry I did it."

The haunted look on his lover's face made Methos want to close his eyes or comfort him, but he wasn't through with this argument yet. Oh, no, not even close, Highlander. You loathe watching me fight, seeing me go to take a challenge, but you haven't looked in that mirror yet. It never occurs to you what your damned pride does to me. I know what risks you run, including the fact that you never seem to quit projecting your own honor onto opponents who have none.

The Scot continued more ruefully, "And I killed him because neither one of us wanted Amanda showing up on our doorstep at three in the morning some day soon, desperate because some lunatic was hunting Rebecca and she wanted our help."

Gold-green eyes narrowed at that, and Methos backhanded him, a slap which drove Duncan's head sideways. "You challenged an unknown Immortal because he might be able to find Amanda?"

One leg yanked Methos in and off balance so that he had to catch himself on the back of the chair. "No, Methos," and a too-solid palm caught the older man just in the ribs and drove him sideways and back before he could regain his balance. "I fought him because I wanted to fight him. What's your excuse?"

"Tired of me in your bed already, Highlander?" The more slender man straightened up despite the catch in his breath; the floating rib had popped loose and would take a moment to heal.

He's jealous of Amanda? Now?! "You idiot!" Duncan snarled at him. "I didn't want Amanda barging in, disrupting our lives, and driving you to wonder exactly that, just because she's too damned good at getting me to bail her out of the hot water she lives in!"

"I'm supposed to believe you thought that far ahead, MacLeod?"

Duncan pushed himself up out of the chair, empty, open hands held out to his lover. "You are the most stubborn, infuriating person I've ever fallen in love with. What in hell do you think I worry about when I'm awake in the mornings before you? Do you know how often I lie there, not wanting to get up yet because I'd rather look at you, hold you while I can, terrified that something's going to swim back up out of the past and destroy us?"

"Throwing my past up again, MacLeod?"

"No, damn it, mine! Keane was my mistake. So was Ingrid. So was O'Rourke. Do you think I don't know that it's as likely to be my problem as yours?"

"I'm five thousand years old, infant, that's a bit more past to show up," Methos pointed out grimly. He stood resolutely apart from the Scot, refusing to relax yet.

"Yeah, well, I'm a lot more likely to leave my enemies alive." Before his lover could take umbrage at the comment, Mac added, "Which is my flaw, not yours. You were right about Kristin."

"Your a two-edged blade, Mac. Sometimes it cuts their enmity."

Dark hair caught the light as Duncan shook his head. "Yeah, well, sometimes it stockpiles trouble, too."

Methos tilted his head, regarding his lover from intrigued, speculative eyes. "Where did this come from?"

"I did some thinking. Is it safe to sit down, or are you still thinking about storming out of here?"

"And if I did?"

"I'd probably hit you over the head with the coat rack and tie you to the bed." When he saw Methos hastily repress a startled smile, Duncan asked more softly, "Will you stay?"

"Highlander...what do you feel when Amanda takes a challenge?"

The switch in subject caught Duncan off-guard, but he quickly saw where Methos was going. Reluctantly he admitted, "Frightened. No matter how good I know she is. I keep wondering if that's going to be the day that she finally finds more trouble than she can talk her way out of."

"And one day, MacLeod, if you don't learn to think, you are going to find yourself in something you can't fight your way out of. Like O'Rourke." Methos continued to force words out, furious at just how vulnerable they made him feel. "And it seems that every time you take a challenge, it's not just your head at stake, Mac. I don't want to think about what I would do if you died. I have survived more lovers than I could count, Highlander, and I could survive your loss, too. But I might not care enough to try."

"Methos..." Duncan moved forward, but the older man stepped back a pace, then another, until his retreat was stopped by the desk. The Scot froze, unwilling to chase him.

"I hid for two centuries because I was tired of it all. You have rekindled my passion for...everything. But I'm not sure the candle won't gutter and fail should the match be extinguished. And I don't know that I care. I am running out of lovers, Duncan, and friends, and even contemporaries. I would settle for four thousand, I think, or even three." He snorted in derision. "The Immortal closest to my age is Cassandra. No, thank you."

"I can't promise you that I won't take challenges, Methos. I'm in the Game, like it or not. You fell in love with me, not some unprincipled, jaded..."

"Survivor?" Methos suggested.

"I was thinking bastard," Duncan replied dryly. "Methos...if I change too much, I won't be the person you're in love with, and I'll still lose you. But I will try to be more careful."

"Why did you challenge him?"

Duncan sighed and closed his eyes, then opened them again and looked over at his lover. "Because I needed to kill him. Matter and anti-matter, you said once. This felt like that...I don't know. Necessary, I suppose. I'm sorry."

Methos tilted his head and studied the younger man thoughtfully. "Stubborn, infuriating Boy Scout," he sighed at last, abandoning anger. "Why is it so irritating when you're right? Come to bed."

"That's sounds like something Rich would say. How are your ribs?"

"Going to rub them out if I say they still hurt? And since when does Rich try to get into your bed?"

Duncan chuckled at that. "You're obviously healed, but I'll give you a backrub as an apology anyway."

"Hmm. And how were you going to redeem yourself for the shower?"

"I didn't hear you objecting at the time," Duncan complained, but his smile showed no sign of succumbing to Scottish guilt. "I'll think of something."

Methos moved over to his lover, taking the extended hand. "We could watch the evening news, I suppose."

The Scot shrugged innocently. "I'm sure you're right. Got to be much more interesting than a backrub."

"I'll take the massage." Long fingers stroked lightly across his throat before rising to trace his lips. "Don't lose your head, MacLeod."

The brown eyes turned serious. "I'll be careful, Methos."

The oldest Immortal studied the ceiling, hoping for divine intercession or blessing and finding nothing. "Do you know, I'm sure Achilles said that too. Or was that Alexander?"

"No, it was Julius Caesar on the Ides of March," Duncan said in exasperation. "I'll do the best I can, all right?"

"Now that I believe. Didn't you mention a backrub?"

Warm arms wrapped around him, settling into the exact spots to match them together as closely as possible. Duncan pressed his cheek against his lover, rubbing against him as if to leave his scent on him. "Come to bed, Methos, let me keep you warm."

"Gladly." My own personal watchfire. Methos chuckled softly at the thought and let Mac drag him off for an extended apology.