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He ducked into a shadowed alleyway and pressed, panting, against the stone wall. His legs ached from running, lungs burned, and his arm . . . Ha! At the sound of approaching footfalls, Alex lifted his gun on reflex and nearly screamed. Hot, tearing pain shot through his arm. The pistol shook, and he lowered it with a curse as a man moved across the mouth of the alley and kept going.

Helpless desperation clawed at his throat. One hand gone already, and his good arm hit. He sucked a breath and bit his lip as he holstered the gun. If he couldn't hit what he was aiming at, he'd hit something else.

Panic danced up his spine as he cradled his arms close and tried to think of any options beyond the one that rang clarion through his skull. Anything but the one he couldn't seem to forget. It came to him with the cadence of poetry. An address from a bit of paper slipped into his hand—"I'm very glad to have met you,"—since disintegrated.

He couldn't. He couldn't just . . .

Alex lifted his head to look for a street sign and get his bearings. He didn't know Paris well, but he knew this. Knew it by its absence, the street he mapped his routes around, the place he kept not passing by, not looking for—a black hole in his internal compass of the city marked as holy ground.

He closed his eyes for just a second, long enough to shake his head in damnation and apology, before he hurried down the alley, weaving silently into shadows.

Despite the fatigue weighing his muscles, he ran because it was all he could do. Too crippled to defend himself, he ran down stairs and up, slowing as he passed by outdoor diners so as not to be memorable. The darkness helped, but Paris was the city of lights, and he found fewer stretches of darkness than he would have liked.

His arm throbbed, and blood ran warm and sticky down to his hand.

Alex turned and turned, running, and finally found himself on Rue Neuve Tolbiac staring up at the building number on the gate. Trembling from the effort, maybe from too much blood loss, he staggered to the call box and leaned his head against it as he checked the names.

No names. 

He paused, panting, as all the might-have-beens for finding himself here collapsed away, all the cold night's dreams a puff of smoke that were only possibilities for someone not so thoroughly him. He stared at the button for the second apartment.

He might not live here anymore.

Or remember.

Alex swallowed and grimaced as he lifted his hand and pressed the buzzer, leaving a smear of blood.

After a moment. "Oui?"

Alex's blood pounded in his ears, so loud he could barely hear. "Adam? Is that— It's—it's Alex. I don't . . . I don't if you remember, we met once in—"

The gate beside him buzzed loudly, and Alex turned to stare at it, speechless. Hope surged behind his ribs, and he whispered a thank you, even if no one was still listening. He shouldered through into the garden and glanced up as lights in the second floor came on. His bloody hand slipped on the doorknob, and it took a few tries and frustrated grunts that bordered on sobs to let himself into the dark hall.

Everything hurt. His body, his legs, his punctured arm. He looked up the length of the stairs in front of him—a mountain in his current condition—grit his teeth, and started up.

The door opened as he reached the top of the stairs, and for the briefest of moments he saw a look he hadn't dared hope for, one of pleased surprise in those dark warm eyes. It lasted only as long as it took Adam to get a look at him, hunched, panting, and pale. Adam’s expression carefully blanked, and his gaze swept down from Alex's face, stopping at the hand dripping blood. He flicked his eyes back up.

"Inside," he said, voice tight, and hooked a hand around Alex's false arm to pull him in. Without letting go, he threw the lock and ushered him toward the living room.

Adam kicked a dining chair out from the table and spun it around. He lined Alex up with it and then paused to look him over again in better light. Alex watched him, silent. He looked the same. The same long planes to his face. The same serious mouth. Like he hadn't aged a day.

Adam moved his hands lightly to Alex's shoulders and thumbed the edge of his jacket collar.

"I'm going to have to take this off, all right?" he asked, steady and serious.

Alex nodded at him, and Adam gently pushed the jacket back off his shoulders. It was only by comparison to Adam’s tranquil solidity that Alex realized how much he was shaking. He let his wounded arm fall slowly to his side as Adam started peeling down the blood-soaked jacket liner. Alex watched in fascination as he saw his shirt, brown with blood, revealed. And then his forearm. The blood had spread everywhere, and he looked skinned.

With swift efficiency, Adam removed the other sleeve over his prosthetic and let the whole jacket fall to the floor with a wet slap.

"Sit," he said, urging Alex down with slight pressure.

He hardly needed convincing.

Alex dropped into the chair, still not able to catch his breath, and watched as Adam disappeared into another room. He came back with a desk lamp and a leather bag. A moment later, new, brighter light made Alex blink as Adam aimed it his way. He went into the bag for something and came back bearing scissors. Alex scowled at him, watching without understanding, then jumped when he saw the blades at the hem of his shirt.

"Hey!"

Adam paused and looked at him. "The jacket I can save," he said, motioning with his head. "This is a little shot, don't you think?"

Alex leveled an unamused look at him, and Adam smirked before lifting his eyebrows in question. Alex gave his assent, and Adam made one long cut from waist to throat, then another along the shoulder line down the arm, one for each side. He managed to slip Alex's shirt off under the shoulder holster and used the scraps to wipe off some of the blood for a better look.

"So, ER doctor?" Alex found himself asking as he watched Adam peer at his wound.

Adam glanced at him, briefly. "What makes you say that?"

He huffed and tried to sit still, but the trembling carried in his voice despite his efforts. "Well, you're pretty calm with a gunshot wound. Probably not a podiatrist."

Adam smirked again and then shifted to where Alex couldn't see him and offered a small smile. "Oh, I don't know, the saying had to come from somewhere."

People shooting themselves in the . . .

Alex rolled his eyes with a good humored sigh as Adam reached into his bag. He pulled out a syringe and small bottle. "Any allergies?"

Suddenly the needle had all of Alex's attention, and he shied away when Adam moved closer. "No,” he said, still short of breath. “What's that?"

"Anesthetic," Adam replied absently as he knelt down. He gave Alex a long look full of curiosity and compassion. Too long a look. Alex dropped his gaze to the floor.

"I can take the pain," he said between rapid breaths.

Adam made an amused sound. "That's very manly, but I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't. Now. May I?"

Alex cut him a look and nodded.

A moment later, Adam's warm hand settled on his shoulder, and then he felt the shot, just one more pain among many.

Adam put on a pair of glasses with magnifying lenses and brought the desk lamp closer. He wiped his hands down with an alcohol rub and then leaned in so close Alex could feel his breath. He started pressing in places that ached even with the numbing.

"Give me self-assessment," Adam ordered, still so calm as he shifted around and wiped away more oozing blood.

Alex swallowed and stared straight ahead, running through the items as he was taught. He brought his attention inward.

"Pulse is . . . rapid," he said, feeling his heart pounding in his chest. "Breathing is shallow, rapid, but unobstructed. Vision clear. My face feels hot, sweaty. Feet and hand are cold."

"So, a little shocky?" Adam asked, and Alex nodded back at him even though he wasn’t looking. Adam pressed his lips together and looked grim. "We'll get some fluids in you." He looked up from the entry wound. "Well, based on the angle, I'd say you didn't hit any bone. And from the volume of blood, it missed the artery. You are," he said as he stood, "incredibly lucky."

A laugh coughed out of Alex's throat before he could stop it. "Lucky."

Adam knelt back down wielding a pair of tweezers and gazed up at him with a wry grin. "Believe me, it could have been a lot worse."

There's something morbidly fascinating about watching your own flesh be manipulated without feeling it. Alex stared as Adam reached into his bicep, fishing for something.

"What are you doing?"

"Clearing debris," Adam responded at length. He drew out a thread from the shirt and then moved around back to do more.

Alex felt himself starting to drift as the cold crept up his legs. He focused on Adam’s movements. He dug into his bag and switched tools.

"Iodine," Adam said, holding up the bottle. He mixed a solution into a squirt bottle.

Alex flinched automatically as Adam started to wash out the wound.

"Did that hurt?" Adam gave him a concerned look as he pressed a towel to his arm to catch the fluid.

"No, I—sorry." Alex shook his head.

Maybe he shouldn't watch what was happening after all. Adam knelt at his side, concentrating and moving nearer as he tried to be thorough. Alex could feel his breath, ghosting light. He was so close, so impossibly here. Not a wish, or a dream. The impulse to touch rolled through him, and Alex started to reach with the hand that wasn't there.

In dreams, he still had two.

By the flick of his gaze and the softening around his eyes, Adam had noticed the movement and divined its intent. In response, he shifted so more of his body came into contact with Alex's leg and thigh. A small thing, but precious all the same.

"So, enjoying Paris?" he asked lightly, swabbing at the wound.

Alex huffed and tried to smile. "Weather could be better."

Adam glanced up at him with a grin and set the bottle and towel aside. He twisted, still keeping contact, and reached for the gauze he'd set on the table.

Something downstairs slammed, and Adam froze.

Their gazes met, and Alex felt his pulse rocket, clearing the fog from his head.

Adam jumped to his feet. "Could they have followed you here?" he asked, quick and serious.

"I—I don't . . ." Fool. Idiot! He hadn't watched. Hadn't checked. He shook his head in stunned horror at his failure.

Adam's flat expression said volumes. He grabbed the gun from Alex's holster and held it like a man well used to the weight. "Stay here," he said, and stalked toward to the door.

"No, Adam!" Alex found himself on his feet.

Adam turned to him and pointed. "Stay." Like he expected to be obeyed. Then he slipped out without a sound.

Alex stared after him, straining to hear. Over the rush of blood and the sound of his own breathing, all he heard was silence. Loud, blaring silence. These were assassins. Trained killers, what was he . . .

Something in another room slid.

If he hadn't been listening so closely, he might have missed it. A window?

With a rush of fear, Alex darted into the kitchen and grabbed the first knife he could find. He pressed himself against the column of wall that separated the kitchen from the living room and struggled to control his breathing. He was in no condition to fight. Too breathless, too unsteady, and his only arm weak. He waited, listening as someone moved into the living room. The man stepped too heavily, breathed too deeply, and Alex could picture his position. Not yet close enough.

Another endless second.

Not yet.

A step off the carpet onto the hardwood floor of the hallway to the door.

Alex held his breath in burning lungs. Spun. And lunged. He swung the blade up from his left hip, aiming for the shooter's right arm.

He missed with the blade, but rammed into the man anyway, and the force sent them both crashing into the wall. The gun hit the floor. Alex staggered back, avoiding a wild swing, then swiped with the blade. His arm wouldn't move like it should, and the pain shot beyond the anesthetic.

The attacker's second swing connected.

Pain and black stars exploded everywhere. Alex stumbled and found himself backed against the dining room table. He dropped the knife and gripped the edge of the table instead. With a wicked grin, the gunman rushed him.

Alex braced himself and kicked hard, throwing the man back across the room. The assassin tripped on the edge of the carpet and fell. The rebuff had drained what little energy Alex had left. Panting and trembling from the effort, he glanced around for anything. Anything to throw or stab or—

The gunman got up and faced him, ready for a second lunge. He started—

And then blood and brain matter burst from the side of his head, almost imperceptibly followed by a small piercing sound.

He fell dead.

Alex blinked and then cautiously stepped out toward the hallway. Adam stood in the doorway, gun still raised.

"Adam?" Alex asked.

Adam looked at him and lowered his arm. And that's when he saw.

A bloom of blood spread across Adam's chest and stomach.

"Adam?" The name came out high, shaking with terror. A belt cinched tight around Alex's chest, and he couldn't breathe, couldn't—

Adam set the gun on the hallway desk and lumbered toward him. Alex caught him under the arm.

"Blyad, blya, blya. We have to call an ambulance."

Adam shook his head and pushed him off. "No . . ."

Alex stared at him, heart pounding too quick in panic. "What?"

"Sit," Adam told him, his voice shaking. He clutched at his chest with one hand and pointed to the dining room chair with the other.

This wasn't happening. "Adam, you've been shot," he said as reasonably as he could. "We have to— You'll die!" Alex grabbed at Adam's arm and tried to spin him around.

Adam fought him off and held his gaze. "Yes . . ." He sucked in a shallow breath. "It's a mortal wound, Alex. There's nothing they could do. Now, sit and let me finish."

Alex stared at him in disbelief, too shocked to speak. It was wrong. All wrong. This wasn't what was supposed to happen. This wasn't how this ended. He dropped into the chair because Adam shoved him there and watched him roll gauze like he was a mirage. Perhaps this was a dream, a fevered fantasy while he bled out on a Paris street. People didn't do this.

But still he sat. And he let Adam stuff gauze into the bullet hole through his arm and wrap it in clean bindings. For all the terrible things he'd done, he still managed to be surprised at himself for sitting, for letting this happen, for letting Adam burn out the rest of his life for—for what? A traitor, a killer, a whore?

"Adam, please."

"I'm almost done."

". . . I'm not worth it." Whispered. Fragile.

For someone who had survived so much at all costs, it shocked him how much he meant it.

Adam pressed the last bandage into place with unsteady hands and surged to his feet struggling for air. Alex moved with him, grabbing at his arm and trying to steer him toward the door.

"C'mon, there's still time, we can—"

Adam broke from his grasp and staggered toward one of the living room chairs. He fell into it, and for a moment Alex stood frozen where he was, outraged and unsure. This wasn't right. This wasn't how this ended.

"Adam . . ." His voice cracked, and he moved to kneel next to him. "This is crazy. You can't just give up. We need to go. We can get you out of here—"

"Alex," Adam said, thin and pained. He pressed his hands over his wounds as blood soaked through his clothes and into the chair. Their eyes met, and Alex felt his panic rise. Adam took a breath to speak that was thick and wet. He coughed up blood, coating his lips, and Alex cupped his cheek in his hand. Adam swallowed and tried again. "You're going to have a choice to make soon," he said softly.

Alex frowned at him, fire and ice battering his ribs. Guilt striped down his back in lashes. "What?"

Adam's chest rattled, but he concentrated on the words. "You can leave, now. F-forget me. Forget that night. Forget all this." He winced in pain. "Go and don't look back."

A quiver shook Alex's jaw and black sorrow knocked his tears free. Not like this. Not like this . . . "Or?"

Adam swallowed, gazed at him. "Or sit . . . in that chair for the next three hours. Ex . . . exactly three hours."

Alex swiped his thumb across Adam's cheek as a hole tore open inside. "You're not gonna make it three hours," he whispered.

Adam nodded at him, more calm than anyone should be. "I know . . ."

"But . . . then why? What happens in three hours?"

Adam laughed a little and smiled, his mouth red with his own blood. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

What was there to believe? He'd be dead and cold, another victim of the pestilence Alex Krycek always left in his wake.

Alex looked up again when Adam's blood-wet fingers touched his face. The other man shook with a cough and gasp.

"Three hours . . ." he said, just barely.

"Adam . . ."

"It'll be all right," Adam said gently, and it touched a spark.

"Net! Vse khuevo, vse ochen khuevo!" Alex shouted at him, shook him as though more sense would give them more time. "It won't . . . God, it won't."

Adam labored for his next breath. "It'll be . . . all right," he insisted.

The words burst a sob from Alex's chest, and he pulled Adam closer, touching their foreheads together so he'd know. So he wouldn't be alone.

"Prosti menya, prosti menya." The words came out thick and shattered. "I'm so sorry."

And he kissed him on the forehead as he died.

 

***

 

Three hours and two minutes later, Methos suddenly, violently gasped awake.

There was a moment of disorientation where the only thing he felt was the ache of his healing ribs. He pressed a hand there automatically and grimaced at the feel of cold blood and heavy, sodden fabric. He shifted to get more of a look at himself, and his eyes fell on a dark patch spread through the upholstery beneath him.

He sighed bitterly. "I loved this chair," he groused.

It was a stalling tactic.

He was not alone. That was something of a miracle, but he hesitated looking up and learning which of the many reactions he had seen would be written on that face.

After a breath to steel himself, Methos lifted his gaze.

Alex stared back at him with red, bloodshot eyes and the tracks of fresh tears evident down his face. He didn't blink, and for a moment, Methos didn't move. Careful, and with deliberate slowness, he put his hands on the armrests and pushed himself up to standing. Alex stood up with him and then stumbled over his chair to back away. He'd raided Methos's wardrobe while he'd waited, picked a deep green shirt to match his eyes.

Methos tipped his head to the side and tried to figure out how to start—how to make it all seem okay.

"Am I late?" he asked.

Alex blinked then. His eyes flicked to the clock on the wall and back.

"Two minutes," he replied with breathy detachment.

Methos offered an apologetic grin and impish shrug. "Sorry . . ."

Alex lifted his hand and held it between them, like he wanted to touch, like he wanted to keep Methos at bay. His eyes traveled the length of Methos's body marveling and confused. His fine brow knit together, and he pointed at him a few times before he could manage words.

"You were dead. I . . . I checked your pulse a dozen times." He kept his raised hand as a ward.

Methos nodded at him and then gently pulled his ruined shirt off over his head. He looked at Alex. "I was . . ." he agreed, then used the shirt to wipe away the smears of blood, revealing perfect, healed skin.

"That's—" Of his own accord and curiosity, Alex drifted a few steps closer, constantly checking between Methos's chest and eyes, as though one of them would offer a clue. "That's not possible," he said, though it lacked conviction. He moved within arm's reach and let his fingertips graze the spots where the bullets had entered.

Methos just breathed and let him do what he wanted, remaining as still and poised as he could manage under the circumstances. When Alex pressed a full palm against his chest, Methos covered his hand with his own.

After a moment of tightening silence, Alex jerked his hand away and looked up, holding his gaze. "I don't understand," he whispered.

Methos nodded at him and fought his disappointment at the sudden revocation. "Why don't I get changed," he said, holding up the sodden shirt, "take care of that"—he nodded toward the dead assassin still decorating his living room—"and then we'll have a talk."

Alex lifted an eyebrow. "A talk . . ."

"Well," Methos replied with an easy smile, lifting a shoulder in a shrug, "you've already had the demonstration."

Alex ran his eyes over him again, wary, then backed away as he nodded.

 

 

 

"Swords."

Methos drew a finger across his throat and offered an apologetic smirk.

Alex frowned at him and nudged his teacup around in a circle by its handle as he shook his head lightly. "Why?"

A question worth asking. "When one of us takes the other's head, we get their power in something called the Quickening."

Alex's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "You concentrate it in fewer and fewer people," he mused.

Methos's smirk broadened into a grin, and he lifted his cup in a mock toast. "There can be only one," he said, then set the cup back down with a sober press of his lips.

"And then what?"

A shrug. "Winner gets the Prize."

"Which is?"

Methos smiled at him. "Well, that's the $64,000 question."

Alex stopped playing with the teacup and glanced up at him. "You mean you don't know?"

"No one does," Methos told him with another shrug.

Alex had chosen to sit at the opposite end of the table, maintaining space. Now, he leaned closer, and Methos felt the scrutiny of his gaze.

"You mean . . . you all could live forever, but instead you kill each other and you don't even know why?" Alex sound offended on behalf of mortals everywhere.

Methos traced the rim of his cup with a finger, avoiding those jade eyes. "It does sound ridiculous when you say it like that," he offered.

"So why don't you just . . . stop?"

"People have tried!" He turned his palms up in a hopeless gesture. "All it takes is one. One of us to decide he wants the power." He shrugged and watched Alex struggle with the idea that they were all so careless with so precious a gift.

More quietly, Alex asked, "What about you? Did you ever stop?"

An odd question. And he wondered what difference his answer would make. "Yes," he said honestly. "A number of times."

It seemed, somehow, the right answer. Alex nodded, mostly at the table, and then got up. He paced away from the dining room table and came to a stop at the threshold of the living room carpet.

More space.

Methos gave him a moment before rising to follow. He needed to see his face, his only gauge on how well or poorly this was going. As he drew up to Alex's elbow, he realized why he'd stopped. And what he was staring at.

The blood-stained chair.

Emotion cracked through the honed exterior, and as Methos watched, tears gathered in the corners of Alex's eyes. He wavered on what to do. Speak. Don't? Alex heaved a deeper breath and spoke without taking his eyes from the chair.

"I came here because you were nice to me once," he said, voice raspy and thick with emotion. "I thought I got you killed—I did," he corrected. "I did get you killed. Because I was . . . stupid." He sucked a breath. "Careless." His jaw quivered as he picked over his words and tried to speak without it cracking. "There's a reason I never—" He cut himself off. In a ghost of a voice he added, "I shouldn't've come here."

Methos ached in his core. This was . . . unnecessary. Unsure, he lifted a hand slowly and placed it on Alex's shoulder.

Alex surprised him by turning into it. He hooked his arm around Methos's waist in case there was any doubt, and Methos folded him into an embrace. Alex dropped his head against his shoulder, not crying. Trying desperately not to cry. Methos held him close, brushing his thumb back and forth through Alex's hair and fighting the urge to sway. Eventually, Alex found the control that had slipped from him, and Methos felt his breathing calm.

He drew back, so Alex would look at him, and smiled a little. "For the record," he said softly, "you were invited."

A laugh bubbled unexpectedly from Alex's throat and left them both grinning. Alex's humor faded as the day caught up with him, and he looked suddenly tired.

Methos brushed along his hairline with a fond smile and let him go. "C'mon. It's been a long night. You need rest. Plenty of it."

Alex nodded at him and let himself be led. They stepped over the stained carpet and headed straight back into the bedroom. Methos nudged him toward the left side of the bed, so he could use the nightstand if he needed, and watched Alex sink onto the mattress with a sigh. Moonlight cast the room in a mix of glow and shadow, the angle just so that he couldn't make out the expression on Alex's face.

He considered a moment whether he should undress him. If he might give offense or magnify the helplessness he imagined someone injured and maimed must feel. But there was no point in making him hurt himself either. And at the first hiss of pain when Alex reached for the hem of his borrowed shirt, Methos dipped in close and nudged at his hand.

"Let me?"

He could feel Alex frowning at him. "I can do it."

"I know . . . but it hurts you more than it hurts me," he said. "Resting, remember?"

Alex gave in, and Methos worked the shirt off him carefully. Then, well, if he was going to do one, why not go all the way? He knelt and hooked Alex's foot up onto his knee to undo the laces on his boot. Tension radiated from Alex's body as he tried not to pull away. When Methos had his bare foot in his hands, he just held it for a second, spreading warmth from his palms. Then he started to press long strokes from the heel with his thumbs. He moved lightly over the kidney region, often a tender spot, up to the heart, down along the arch, the zone of the spine. Slowly, thumb-stepping, he worked the outer edge of the foot for the shoulders and arm. He heard Alex shudder out a breath and swallow.

Now shoulders. Always include the shoulders. Small, gentle motions under the little toe.

Alex sighed out all he had, and Methos smiled to himself.

"So . . . not just a doctor?" Alex asked, sounding drowsy and warm. Methos felt his voice like grazing softness.

He switched, undid the other boot. He kept his voice low. "Doctor, lawyer. Writer, historian, architect, librarian . . ." Alex huffed at that. "Linguist, professor." He rubbed gently at a pressure point and elicited another of those delicious sighs. "Other things," he added, a smile in his tone.

He had meant to undress him with clinical detachment. But when he undid the fly on Alex's jeans and Alex lifted his hips to help . . . oh, he imagined so many other options. Alex's breath quickened at the closeness of his hands, and Methos had to steady himself—rest, rest—as he pulled the clothes off the rest of the way. His own heart pounded hard just seeing him, a silver glow cutting across his skin. And Alex watching him, always watching.

The only things left were his boxers and the prosthetic. Methos nodded at it.

"Do you want that off?"

"I—" Alex caught himself and looked cautiously between Methos and the arm, considering. "I can't sleep with it on," he said, and it sounded like a confession.

Straps crossed his chest and back to hold it on and give him some measure of control. Methos undid the buckles, trying not to let his fingertips touch. Maybe that was the wrong thing. He wasn't afraid, but he could feel Alex strung so tight. He couldn't tell if it was fear or shame, but it made him cautious when he wanted to be soothing. If he said he didn't care, that he wasn't bothered, he didn't think Alex would really believe him. And patronizing might be worse.

He set the arm on the nightstand within easy reach and turned away with an excuse to get more pillows. Alex let him build a wedge of pillows in dense silence and dutifully lay back when told.

"How's the pain?" Methos asked him—a good, clinical question.

Alex lifted a shoulder in a shrug. "I can manage."

Methos gave him a deadpan look. "Again, I wouldn't be doing my job." He found painkillers in his bag and returned with a glass of water for good measure.

He let his patient take his pills in peace and ran out of reasons not to get ready for bed himself. The intensity of Alex's gaze pressed heavy on his body as he stripped, and he moved with intention under a beam of moonlight. Flexing, lingering. His blood stirred with the thrill of being watched. He threw the curtains before climbing into bed and sighed at the brush of the sheets—a luxury that Adam Pierson could not afford but proved themselves now so very worth it.

Even though he couldn't see him, he could feel him there, in the dark. A weight on the bed, a source of heat. People were not meant to be alone.

He sank to the edge of drowsiness, then felt a shift beside him.

A moment later, Alex's hand brushed across his middle then down. He groped him through the thin fabric of his boxers, and Methos felt an automatic rush of heat to his groin before he grabbed Alex's wrist, gentle but firm.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

Alex's voice came to him dusty and closer than he expected. "I thought that might be obvious."

Oh . . . obvious and tempting. But there was something more, here.

He rolled onto his side and pressed Alex's hand back to him. He wished he could see better. Instead, he moved Alex's hand to his chest and held it there, caressing the back with his thumb.

"Alex . . ." he said his name like a precious thing, breathed it. "This isn't transactional. Orgasms for aid."

Something about the answering silence sounded like a frown. "But . . ."

"You came here for sanctuary," Methos said gently, "and I intend to give it. You can leave when you want, and stay as long as you like. And we will do or not do at your pleasure."

Another long silence filled with only the sounds of their breathing and heat of hands on hands. Then, "What if this is what I want?"

Methos drew closer to the sound of his voice, until he could feel Alex's breath on his face and whispered, smiling. "Then I'll still be here in the morning."

 

 

 

When Alex finally woke for real, it was almost barely still morning. Methos brought him more pills and water to wash it down. Alex took them without hesitation and then lay pliant as Methos took his wrist in his hand to check his pulse.

He could feel the heat of his gaze as he counted.

A little high.

Methos let go, but Alex took his wrist in return before he could move out of reach. He tugged, and their gazes connected with the intimate fire of touch. There was question written on that innocent-seeming face. A plea.

Something burned in this boy. A will, a desire. Not just for here and now but, Methos suspected, always, and for something more. Excitement rippled across Methos's skin as Alex swept him with a hungry look and licked his lower lip.

He nodded his assent and leaned down, let Alex pull him into a kiss. Soft, warm, tender parting. He kissed, sucked, pressed. Felt a rumble that may have been Alex groaning at the contact, and then stilled and broke away. Hot breath on wet lips.

He straightened, body alive,and took in the sight of his partner, flushed already. Eager. He hadn't realized how much he'd wanted this since hearing Alex's voice, hypnotic. A velvet sound he wanted whispered in his ear, or straining on his name. He could fall for a voice like that . . .

Methos stepped just out of reach and forced himself to focus. You could learn a lot of things in five thousand years, though none as distinctly useful as how to give pleasure. An infinite currency with many buyers. He gripped the hem of his shirt and drew it up slowly, tightening his muscles, articulating his strength. Even as he let it fall from his hands, he moved with a dancer's grace and let himself be seen. His skin tingled with the anticipation of being touched.

He turned as he pushed down sweats and boxers together to offer a view of the ass Alex had so appreciated last time. Methos glanced over his shoulder with a small, coy look, just to see. Alex watched him, and the corners of his mouth quirked.

Good. He was going to play.

Methos came to the side of the bed and with the measured movements of a ritual and folded the covers off of Alex. Once, partially. Twice to finish. As though he had practiced this. The Revelation of the Lover. The thought made him smile.

Alex lay perfectly still, watching him with curious, dark eyes.

In a smooth, powerful motion, Methos straddled him, careful of his weight and placement of limbs. He squeezed his knees against Alex's thighs lightly and put a hand on his chest with only the barest pressure. He could feel him breathing and getting hard just from this.

"Try not to move your arm," he said quietly, touching the bruise below the bandages.

Alex glanced at his wound and frowned. "Doesn't leave me much." Husk and honey.

He rotated his hips a little for friction and smirked at Alex's dry swallow. "It leaves enough" he told him, and they both fell silent.

Methos gazed down at the man beneath him, contemplating his mystery, his curious acquiescence. A stranger who had come to him twice in need, and needed still.

Love is patient . . .

Love is kind . . .

How do I make love to this one? he wondered.

But he could read the answer in the longing. Could remember how the simplest of gestures had broken him apart. Kindness; he had no defenses against kindness.

Methos leaned down and brushed his fingers along Alex's cheeks before he kissed him. Gently, fleeting. The corner. The bow. The corner. More caring and soft than needy.

He let his hands roam in widening circles. Fingers threading into his hair as he kissed his cheek. Circle soft as he touched each eyelid with warm lips.

Rubbing, brushing. Small kisses to the delicate part of the neck.

Alex sighed at the attention as a tremor passed through him.

There was no magic in it, no secret art. Just a tender touch to skin scarred with evidence of its pains.

He moved lower and kept track of his hands, tracing the muscle of Alex's chest with one. Stroking toward his left shoulder with the other. Alex tensed when Methos's fingers found his upper arm, but he didn’t object or pull away. Methos kissed and licked at his chest, always moving, squeezing with his thighs in a slow rolling rhythm. He massaged the arm under his hand with coaxing pressure. There was a boundary here that he could feel Alex reluctant to cross, but he wanted him to know, even still, this is a part of you, too.

Alex relaxed.

Methos moved on.

A slide, a touch. Glancing arcs of heat and wet lips. So gentle. The tremors. So gentle. The caress.

Alex trembled under him, his shudders growing steadily as his breathing went ragged. He gasped at the touch of lips to the hollow of his throat, and tears escaped the corners of his eyes.

"Why do you do this to me?" he breathed.

Methos kissed one nipple and then laved at it, earning another gasp.

"Because someone should." He stroked long fingers down Alex's neck. "Because you need it." He shifted back so he could go lower, cradling the shell of his lover's ribs in his hands. "Because you're beautiful," he whispered, dragging his lower lip across tight skin.

The body beneath him froze.

Methos could feel the sudden tension under his kissing lips, and a knot of concern tightened in him. Fear tickled down his spine.

"Alex?"

His pulse pounded in his tongue at the silence, and he glanced up.

Alex had turned his face away. His eyes were screwed shut and mouth drawn in pain.

No. No, no.

Methos crawled up his body and leaned over him. "Alex?" he tried again, but still nothing. Unsure but needing any response at all, he tried a different way. "Sasha, o chyom tye dumaesh?"

His eyes opened at that, and, shaking, he started to breathe. Fear clouded his expression as he stared at Methos and then faded as he glanced quickly around. Methos drew back to give him space and waited for him to swallow down the embarrassment that had colored his face. Whatever that had been, it was nothing anyone else was supposed to see.

Alex eventually met his gaze, and Methos let himself settle a little closer.

"Don't call me that." The words cracked and broken.

Methos canted his head. "Which?"

"Beautiful," Alex whispered, the word barely there.

Oh, child. There was secret here Methos was sure he did not wish to know. And he drew the backs of his fingers down Alex's cheek in quiet assent before he dipped toward the curve of his neck. He paused, not yet touching, as Alex opened for him, making himself vulnerable again. Such a gift it made his heart ache.

"How about . . . exquisite?" Methos asked, closing the distance and sucking a sensitive spot. He moved lower. "Delicious." Flicked a nipple with his tongue. "Artful . . ." Stomach. "Beguiling . . ." Hip.

He glanced up to find Alex fighting a smile. Which was a start. He could do better.

He hooked his fingers around the waistband of Alex's boxers and started to drag them down, following with his mouth.

"On idyot - v nem krasota nochnaya," he began and licked at the crease of his leg.

"Bezoblachnoy ee chistoy vysheeny." Whispered against his thigh.

He could hear Alex's breathing quicken.

"Loochy ee soomrak sochetaya." He drew fingers down the inside of his leg.

"Mertsayut ochee, smyagcheny." And placed a small kiss on the inside of his knee. Alex's hand tightened into the sheets.

He drew the boxers the rest of the way off but stayed where he was, crouched and watching Alex watch him. His gaze flicked to the hard cock he'd been ignoring. The anticipation had wound so tight between them he could feel it crackling along his skin.

Alex panted and scorched him with a lust-dark look.

Methos licked his lips and prowled forward. He took him into his mouth in one effortless motion that squeezed a sigh from Alex's lungs. He sucked as he drew off, worked his tongue along the shaft, and  swallowed back down with a groan. Alex tossed his head back and moved his arm enough to run his fingers through Methos's hair.

He kept a slow, languorous pace, sucking, swallowing, as though days could be spent just here. Alex tightened his grip on his hair, and that was all the signal Methos needed. He pulled off and for the first time since he'd started broke the chain of contact between them just long enough to get lube from the nightstand on his side.

He could have made a show of this, too. Working himself open on his own fingers. But he wanted, and for all his control, he couldn't wait. Eyes locked on one another, he straddled his lover a second time and sank achingly down.

Methos arched with the pleasure of it, heat and fullness. He kept a hand poised on Alex's sternum for balance. A circle of his hips, slowly, deliberately, grinding with a sinuous ripple of muscle, clenching as he lifted, as though he could draw his partner's pleasure up from his soles. Alex gripped his thigh, petting, urging.

The embers in him flashed. Cracked. Thrust for thrust.

His body went liquid with sensation. A tide, in.

The undertow of curling pleasure, pulling . . .

White-capped, splashed the pulsing heart.

Breathe . . . red—full to the throat.

Breathe, cracking sides. We . . . tumble . . . we.

Alex rocked, moving with him, surrendering to this honeyed torture of inexorable nature. But silent, still so silent.

Methos changed pace, all his attention narrowed to hard-won sighs and the smudge of Alex's lashes against his cheeks. One quick pinch to a hard nipple, and Alex sucked a sharp breath and shuddered on the edge of his control. He shook his head, panting, clawing at Methos's leg to make it end, make it stop.

Methos bent into his neck again, nipping at that one perfect spot. He lashed his tongue hard, snapped his hips, and beneath him, Alex shuddered.

He came not like thunder or an earthquake but like a tropical rain. A gradual tidal shake across his body. He pulled Methos to him, chest to chest, and clung hard as his breath punched out and out. Methos felt heat spread through him as their movements ebbed, and he kissed lazily up Alex's neck to his lips. Alex kissed him back with melting sweetness, and licked at the roof of his mouth. With a sigh, Methos rested their foreheads together and let the gnaw of his own need soak into time's sand.

After a moment of close silence and gentle touches, he rolled away.

Alex's eyes popped open at his sudden absense, and he gave him a hazy, confused look. "But . . . you—"

Methos grinned at him. "It's all right."

"But I can—"

"Alex . . ." He touched his face to calm him. "There's a different kind of pleasure in giving," he said. And it was true.

He disappeared into the bathroom to clean up and returned to find Alex still wearing a worried expression, a guilty one. Methos swept his boxers off the floor as he paced closer. He slipped them back on as he sat down, then rolled onto his side and propped his head on one hand. He let his gaze wander the tight muscles of his partner's body and slowly smiled, mostly to himself.

"What?" It was curious the times Alex couldn't take the silence.

He shrugged. "Just thinking . . ." He stepped his fingers up Alex's ribs. "D'you know endorphins are good for healing?" he offered, all shy smiles and dancing eyes.

Alex shifted and gave him a narrow, playful look. "Really." He tried not to smile back. "Does that mean I get a prescription?"

Methos laughed and eyed those perfect, amused lips. Alex's tongue darted out just enough to wet them, to tease. He dipped in close in response and hovered, not touching. "I don't know," he whispered, then kissed him soft and searching. "We'll have to ask your doctor."

 

 

 

For the rest of the day and into the night, Alex drowsed, waking whenever Methos entered the room  and then drifting back into a turbulent sleep. He'd balked when roused for a sponge bath, but Methos insisted that Château Pierson was a full service establishment, and something between the cheeky smile and morsel of information had turned him to grudging acceptance.

They slept; just slept, twined and protective.

And when Methos rose in the morning, Alex moved alongside him, dressing in another borrowed soft shirt and making breakfast take twice as long for all the accidental grazes while Methos's hands had other things to do.

"I have to go to work," Methos told him, voice colored with apology.

Alex chewed and looked at him thoughtfully. "You work?"

The old man's eyebrows shot up. "Well this place isn't free."

"Yeah, I—" Alex frowned and shook off the thought. "Where?" he asked. An innocent seeming question, but he kept looking away, as though he wasn't sure he could ask. Or if he could trust the answer.

Methos drew a breath and smirked. "The Louvre?" he replied as he got up.

Without missing a beat, Alex shrugged. "Never heard of it," and hid his smile in his coffee cup.

Methos huffed and couldn't be sure which he liked more, being impressive or being unremarkable. He paused just before disappearing down the hallway and gave Alex a suddenly serious look. He wanted to ask if he should stay, if Alex would be safe alone. If he felt well enough to be alone. If he was even planning on being here when Methos returned.

After a long look, he settled on, "I'll see you later?" and got an enigmatic smile in response.

 

 

 

That evening, halfway from the garden gate to the door, Methos felt the buzz wash over him and turned in a tight circle to check his surroundings. No one appeared out of the Paris night, no rushed footsteps in his direction.

He took the stairs two at a time and opened his apartment door sword in hand, heart beating hard.

A familiar figure stood in his living room, wielding a sword of his own.

"MacLeod?" Methos asked, annoyed.

"Methos!" Duncan heaved a breath and sagged as he lowered his sword.

Methos moved a few steps into the hallway, frowning. "Mac, you're in my apartment, why do you look surprised?"

Duncan tucked his sword back into his coat. "You weren't answering your phone. I came to check and . . ." He motioned at the blood-soaked chair and red-stained carpet.

Methos glanced at the coffee table and cut Mac a sarcastic look. "So, you thought you'd sit and drink my beer?"

"I called Joe." Duncan shrugged defensively. "I was waiting for him to call back."

He heard the words, but a more urgent worry pricked at the back of his neck, and he found himself drifting further into the apartment and peering past Duncan. His mouth went dry.

"Alex?" he called, sharp with apprehension.

The hallway closet crept open on oiled hinges, and Alex emerged, pointing his gun at Duncan's chest. He crossed to Methos's side in quick strides and gave no hint of the agony he must have been in holding the weapon up and steady. Methos half-expected to see a spot of blood seep through the bandages.

For a moment, no one moved.

Then, "He's one of you?" Alex asked, deadly calm.

"You told him?" Duncan exploded with disbelief.

Methos peered between the both of them, squaring off against one another like junkyard dogs. "Yes . . ." He said, answering them, and pointedly set his sword leaning against the wall. "And a friend."

Alex quirked an eyebrow but kept his aim true. "Your friends always break into your house?"

Duncan shot him an appalled look. "I didn't break in, I have a key! Plus, he breaks into my house all the time," he added, petulant.

Ever so slightly, Alex inclined his head in Methos's direction and shifted his weight toward him.

"That's . . . true, actually," Methos told him. "And he does have a key."

Alex glanced at him, taking his eyes off his target for a second, and Methos nodded. He lowered the gun.

Duncan stared at the both of them, too many questions written on his face to count. Methos rolled his shoulders and forced a small smile.

"Duncan MacLeod," he said, gesturing in his direction. "Alex—"

"Krycek," Alex supplied smoothly.

Duncan nodded in an imitation of good manners and turned a glare in Methos's direction. "You told him."

Irritation pinched Methos's shoulder blades. "He saw me die, MacLeod. Yes, I told him. I didn't fancy waking up in a morgue."

Duncan shook his head, scowling. "It wasn't yours to tell. It's a rule for a reason!"

Methos rolled his eyes at that and turned for the kitchen, waving away the reprimand. Duncan did not give up.

"You've had friends for years you've never told. But him . . ."

Something in his tone made Methos whirl. "Is that your highland manners?" he demanded, irritation flaring into anger.

"It's fine," Alex said softly.

Methos scorched Duncan with a glare. "No. It isn't." He shifted his weight. "If you have something to say, MacLeod, say it."

Duncan's jaw set, and he looked between the two of them, judging his options. "If you trust him"—he pointed—"with what we are, trust him that much, how come you've never mentioned him."

Methos snorted out a bitter laugh and shook his head. Typical arrogance. "This may come as a bit of a shock, but I don't clear all my affairs with you first."

He turned, bristling, and stalked into the kitchen. He grabbed himself a beer and offered Alex a bottle of water (bullet-holes and blood thinner were a poor combination) which was politely refused.

Methos strode back into the living room to find Duncan wearing a false smile over his crossed arms.

"So, Alex, what do you do?"

"Stop it." Methos snarled the words.

Duncan offered a puppy-dog innocent look, eyes too big for guile. "What?"

"You're not helping your case." Gods, he could be a child.

"What case?"

"I don't know," Methos replied, arch but not unkind, "but you're going to tell me." He dropped onto his couch without ceremony and took a drink while he watched Duncan sit, chastised. After a moment of silent fidgeting, Methos narrowed a glare at him. "Out with it."

"It's Kenny."

Kenny . . . Kenny . . . It sounded familiar. "The kid?" he asked. But MacLeod wasn't paying attention. Methos followed the line of his scowl and turned to peer over his shoulder.

Alex stood against the wall with his hands clasped in front of him, alert and watchful but no readable expression on his face. Their eyes met, but Methos could discern nothing from it. He frowned in confusion at the unexpected behavior.

"Come sit," he told him.

Startlement registered on Alex's face, then something different, something Methos couldn't read as Alex looked to the floor instead and swallowed. He hesitated before stepping away from the wall and moved to the side of the couch within easy reach. With his hand on the armrest for balance, he started to kneel. To—

Horror like a hammer rung cold and crystalline through Methos's bones.

—to sit at his master's feet.

It clicked into shape with the way he'd been standing, like a bodyguard. Methos remembered. From long ago and from both sides. He breath froze, and his stomach turned.

He grabbed Alex's arm before he could go any further, and Alex turned to look at him with a dead, hollowness to his eyes. Methos tipped his head to the side, indicating the empty cushion next to him. He could see the realization as it struck, that he had misjudged the situation for reasons Methos could not fathom, and the embarrassment colored his face.

"It's okay," Methos mouthed to him with a kind smile, and somehow that was enough to ease the tension.

As Alex stepped to take a seat, Methos shot MacLeod a sharp look of warning. The couch dipped with Alex's weight, and Methos lifted his eyebrows in Duncan's direction in a clear signal to get on with it.

"Yes, the kid," Duncan said, picking up the dropped thread and not so much as glancing in Alex's direction.

"What about him?"

"He needs to be stopped."

Methos narrowed his eyes and said nothing for a moment, studying the emotions MacLeod had never learned to control, written so plainly. "What happened?"

Mac swallowed and closed his eyes for a second. "He only takes the good ones."

"MacLeod—"

"That's what he does! He targets people who are kind, who want to help! He preys on their good nature."

"And?" Methos asked, earning a scowl. "He's been a child his entire life. He can't wield a sword; he'll never be as strong as you or I. He does what he has to do."

"You can't believe that . . . You told me once that it wasn't about who's better with a sword. That the winner should be the best of us. Well he's killing the best of us!"

Methos drew a deep breath and sighed as he put his beer bottle on the table. "What do you want from me?"

Duncan glanced down at his hands, playing with his fingers. "A location."

He arched at eyebrow at him. "And I'd know that how?"

MacLeod lifted his head to look at him, deadpan. "You know how," he muttered.

A spike of indignation shot through Methos's chest. "The Watchers!" He laughed in mirthless disbelief. "You . . . are . . . unbelievable! A minute ago, I was the bad guy for breaking the rules. But now that you want something . . ."

"You're already breaking the oath."

"For self-preservation!" Methos barked back. "Not to have an easy hunt! Have you asked Joe about this?"

MacLeod dropped his gaze to his hands and didn't answer.

Heat simmered in Methos's blood. "No, of course not. You want me to do your dirty work." Duncan had the decency to look abashed, and Methos threw himself back into the couch in annoyance, wearing his most inhospitable glare. It took a few breaths before he thought he could talk like a reasonable man. He uncrossed his arms and sat forward, touching the beer bottle but unsure if he wanted to drink.

"I don't know what you want it for anyway," he said, less heated than before. "You couldn't do it." Duncan's scowl deepened, but he kept going. "He looks like a child, MacLeod. You don't have it in you. You didn't do it before, and you couldn't now."

As he said the words, he felt something crawl across his awareness.

"And . . . you know that . . ." Methos added, voice like the dawning sun. "You didn't come here for directions. You want me to do it." Duncan rubbed one his palms, avoiding his gaze. He could have laughed. "Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, MacLeod, but I'm not your hitman."

"I could do it," Alex said suddenly, reminding them both that he was there.

Two sets of eyes swiveled in his direction.

"Out of the question," Methos said.

Alex shrugged a little and glanced between them. "I don't ping like you do. Wouldn't see it coming."

Methos was shaking his head even before Alex had finished speaking. "This isn't your problem to solve," he said gently. "If mortals start interfering with the game, there'll be chaos. Thank you, but"—he cut a look at Duncan—"if Mac wants it done, he's going to have to do it himself."

Duncan glared at him with rising anger. "He's going to kill a lot of innocent people, good people."

"Probably."

"And we could have stopped it!"

"It's not my problem!"

Duncan shook with rage and had no more words. He grabbed his coat and stormed out of the apartment, slamming the door behind him.

Methos stared after him for a second before leaning forward with a sigh and rubbing at his temples. The passion of youth, he thought, suddenly tired.

After a few moments of cautious silence, Alex asked, "Methos?"

He grunted in acknowledgment.

"Is that your real name?"

Struck, his eyes flashed open, and he jerked his head up to stare at Alex, who sat in the corner of the couch with his false arm tucked into his side. His breath quickened as he tried to read Alex's face, but it was becoming clearer to him that Alex rarely gave things away without intention. And he had no intention now. Methos sighed, nodded, and struggled to gauge whether this was going to be a fight.

"You . . . want to know why I didn't tell you . . ." he ventured.

Alex glanced down ever so briefly as he blinked and then regarded him steadily.

He took a deep breath and slid over into Alex's space a little bit at a time. He didn't seem angry. That was something. Methos shifted closer until their legs pressed together—as far as he could go with the arm in the way. Alex lifted it a little in offering, but he didn't have the range of motion on his own. Methos slipped himself under until he could drop his head back against a warm shoulder.

"I am very, very old, Alex. Unfathomably old. And that means there's a lot of power in here"—he tapped his chest—"that other people want." He sighed again. "That name is a beacon of trouble." Then he turned to meet his eyes. "And I think you may already have your share."

Alex mulled that over, and the stony exterior quietly dismantled.

"What should I call you?" he asked, that glorious husky voice going straight to Methos's core.

"Well"—Methos smirked at him—"Adam's a much nicer guy."

Alex leaned in a little closer, grazing his lips along Methos's ear. "Is that supposed to make up my mind?"

Gods. It ran down his spine, and he arched before melting into Alex's side.

"Keep talking," he muttered on a long exhale, and let his eyes fall shut.

Alex made a sound like a smile. And if he hadn't known the effect he could have before, he was catching on. "What do you want me to say?" He all but purred.

The phone book would do. But for the gift of his silent assassin talking, Methos had better ideas.

"Tell me what you like."

The heat of Alex's breath washed across his cheek. "What I like," he repeated, in chocolates and suedes.

Of course it sounded sexual, but he hadn't meant it so narrowly. What you like. Rum over rye. Action movies. Opera.

It took Alex a moment before he started to answer, a small hesitation where he huffed a laugh that by the sound was at himself, like he thought himself foolish. But then he started speaking, confessing mundane joys; and Methos coaxed more with his small questions and contented hums. He lost track of time as Alex's voice slid through his body, touching nerves, turning him liquid and blurred-edged.

Eventually, Alex ran out of things to say and pressed his lips against Methos's hair, waiting. Methos blinked his eyes as he rose from the trance. He'd been alert for every word, but felt heavy with intoxication, blissed, and it took a minute for it to clear. He offered Alex a slow smile.

"How're you feeling?" Methos nodded toward the injured arm as he made a little space between them just to keep his wits.

"Fine. Why?"

"Because your knowledge of Parisian cinema is appalling. I thought we might do something about it."

Alex blinked at him, then lifted his eyebrows. "Did you . . .  just ask me out on a date?"

A flash flood of doubt wiped away Methos's hopeful expression. "Well . . ."

Alex laughed. "I . . . don't even remember the last—"

"You're right. Of course." He tried to shrug it off. "It sounds silly when you say it." And he turned away to hide the disappointment on his face and let his stomach flutter out its nerves.

Alex went quiet, and Methos could feel his regard, even if he didn't want to face it quite yet.

"We should do it," the man said softly, and Methos looked at him with surprise that warmed into a smile and earned a smile in return.

So they did.

And ate afterwards in a small place where Adam Pierson had a private table and good rapport with the chef.

 

 

 

They fell into a routine after that. Slow, lazy sex in the morning, an afternoon of reading for Alex while Adam was at work, evenings out in places Alex could never have afforded. An impromptu dance, once, at a night bazaar under a perfection of stars, just for joy.

It felt like home, this strange predictability and unaccustomed comfort. It felt easy.

Until the evening Adam didn't return at his usual time.

An hour passed.

Then three.

Alex gave the clock increasingly dark, furtive looks and found himself reading the same line over and over. Hunger drove him to the kitchen, where he scrounged enough between the fridge and the cupboard to make a passable if not impressive meal. Stuffed peppers were easy.

He worked for the distraction, but the microwave clock pulled at him, and more worry skittered down his neck on spider's legs.

Perhaps . . . Adam's friend.

If he dug around, he might be able to find a phone number or address for that MacLeod. If there was trouble, it might not be the kind Alex could handle on his own. Or at all.

Or he might send Adam's friend bursting in on a late night marathon painting restoration and make them both look like catastrophizing milkmaids.

The more the thoughts swirled around, the more sure Alex felt that something was wrong and that cooking dinner wasn't going to fix it.

He was holding a knife and staring into a topped pepper when the door to the apartment opened. The knife hit the counter as he looked up, and he crossed the kitchen in two breathless strides.

"Adam?"

Someone grabbed him.

There was a blur of motion and a strong shove, and Alex slammed against the wall of the hallway, a sword pressed against his throat.

"Yes and no," came the reply, growled through Adam's lips.

Alex stared, stunned at the roiling anger in eyes that did not look like his lover's eyes.

Adam pressed in closer, shoving his knee between Alex's legs to part them and pressing the blade just a little more. He panted, washing Alex's face with hot breath.

Alex swallowed very carefully, unsure what was happening but quite sure the only reason he was still alive was because Adam wanted him to be. He leaned, ever so slightly, toward the lips he'd kissed that morning and had just enough reach that his lower lip could touch.

It was . . . a plea. He had a dozen hopes for what it might communicate. If nothing else, at least it was an offer, proof that he had some kind of value.

Adam drew back from the not-quite kiss to consider him, evaluate him, while his chest heaved like he'd been running and hadn't stopped. He dropped the sword and took a fistful of Alex's hair in his hand instead. Methos shoved him back against the wall, hard, holding him in place, and kissed him like starving. No kindness, no finesse. Mouth and tongue and teeth, invading, scoring. Alex grunted, trying to keep up, while the violence of it sent adrenaline rushing through him.

His lips stung. Like spice. Like the almost bruising edge of pain lighting his skin on fire.

Then Methos bit, and Alex jerked back with the shock of real pain and the taste of blood.

Fear shivered through him as he stared at Adam's lust-dark, dangerous eyes and panted.

"Come on, Alex," Methos purred at him, hovering, holding him still. "I know you have it in you." He tightened his grip in Alex's hair, pulling to make it hurt.

Alex narrowed his eyes, his only response to the new pain, and put his hand on Adam's chest, feeling it rise and fall, trembling with something barely restrained.

You have it in you.

A darkness.

He did.

And he had been so careful with it. So measured.

His scalp hurt. His lip hurt. His arm hurt. And he was so fucking tired of being hurt.

Years of well-honed control vanished in an instant under a flood of frustrated rage.

He twisted the shirt under his hand into a tight grip and shoved. With a step, he threw them into a spin, gathering momentum. Methos slammed into the wall between kitchen and living room hard enough to knock the wind out of him, and Alex mirrored their previous pose. He pulled Methos's hair tight and pinned him against the wall with the weight of his body. With a kick, he made him spread his legs, vulnerable, and then rubbed against him with a sinuous writhe.

He kissed to bruise, to take as had so often been taken. The power of it slipped hot through his veins, control. Domination. He jerked his fist, eliciting a pained gasp, and it tasted like sweet amber.

It made him want more.

Adam stared at him with dark eyes, shaking with emotion. Arousal, maybe. But something deeper, too. His eyes held a challenge. Make me afraid.

And it made Alex seethe.

He started for the living room, hauling Adam by the hair behind him, and spun to fling him toward the couch. Adam hit with a grunt and turned to face him, his legs backed against the armrest. If he lost his balance, he'd fall back onto the cushions. Helpless. Alex held his hungry gaze, feeling a surge of desire of his own.

"Take it off," he said, and stalked a step closer.

Adam inclined his head and said nothing. Just . . . watched. Taunting his superiority, his ability to resist.

Alex slipped a knife from his back pocket and flicked it open. He took a cautious step, unsure if his prey would run. Adam eyed the blade as Alex drew nearer still. He had given away his weakness, and Alex could find a way to kill him with that knowledge if he wished. And they both knew it.

If there was a line between the pantomime of violence and the reality, it was in all the things Methos did not do.

Like try to run. Or take the knife.

Instead, he let Alex move in kissing close and touch the cool of the blade to his cheek. Alex traced it lightly down his skin, carefully not drawing blood from an exposed, trembling throat.

"Take it. Off." Alex repeated, holding the other man's gaze. He could not have been more serious, and he held the tip of the blade to Methos's Adam's apple while Methos dropped his coat from his shoulders.

Alex moved the blade away, letting him breathe, then hooked it under the collar of the t-shirt he wore and sliced.

The blade hit skin, and Methos shoved him back with a pained gasp. He should've felt sorry or surprised at his carelessness, but indignation at being shoved, at being denied, ruled. He dropped the knife and lunged, grabbing at the fabric to tear it the rest of the way. It ripped open, revealing smooth, hard muscle and a small smear of blood. He couldn't tear it all the way with only one hand, and the frustration spiraled.

Adam batted his hand away, and Alex grabbed him by the throat instead. He crowded in, throwing him off balance. Adam's eyes went wide. His pulse quickened under Alex's fingers, and he did not kiss back when Alex went in for a quick, sharp theft. When he was done, Alex tossed him back, sending him sprawling onto the couch, long legs dangling over the side.

He didn't wait to see his expression. He didn't care. Somehow, reason intruded into their dangerous game. Alex hooked one of Adam's legs up to his shoulder and pulled at the laces on his shoes. He flung the boot aside, dropped him, and did the other. He couldn't fuck him with his clothes on. Make him beg to stop. Beg to finish.

Alex knocked the other leg down and loomed. Satisfaction warmed in his groin at the red glow on Adam's lips from harsh treatment. At the tattered clothes. The gasps of pain. His body sang for it, the freedom of violence. And this body, this . . . beautiful body so ready to take it. So quickly could it heal. He knew what Adam felt like, bucking. How hot inside. How perfect.

Gentle and giving, too.

And the thought gave him pause. Made him doubt. The rage that boiled in his chest, that collected pained cries like a balm, wasn't for this. Wasn't from here. And as good as it felt to throw and hit and bellow . . .

His breaths came in short and shallow as Adam slowly smiled a wicked smile.

"Let it go," Adam whispered.

Your reservations. Your morals.

He was sure in that moment that it was permission of a kind. And a request. Alex had a role to play, and he would play it the best he could until this fever burned out.

With a smirk, he leaned over, brushing his fingers up Adam's face with calculated gentleness before he snatched his hair in a tight grip again and hauled him up to his feet. Their bodies nearly touched, and Adam watched him carefully, shaking a little and arching with an instinct to lessen the pain.

"The button," Alex growled. He held him so he couldn't look down.

Adam's fingers traced his body, searching for the fly of his jeans. He started to undo the top button, and Alex found himself holding his breath. His fingers were so . . . close. So close and he ached to be touched, to have Adam's hand wrap around his cock—he pulsed with need and steadied himself, swallowing dryly as Adam drew the zipper down. Not touching.

Alex shook him hard once, making him wince.

"Yours."

Adam opened his pants, holding eye contact and breathing through parted lips. 

Alex released his hair and grabbed him by the arm instead. For two swift steps, Adam stumbled after him through the living room, and then Alex threw him toward the bedroom door. He caught himself on the door jamb and looked up at him with eyes of midnight fire. Alex moved toward him on panther's feet, and Adam backed away as they crossed the threshold. Near the foot of the bed, Adam dropped into a fighting stance.

Alex stared him down, the defiance sending jolts of ire through his limbs. He shucked off his shirt with practiced ease and kept a wary eye on Adam as he got rid of the rest.

He closed the distance, and Adam lunged.

It was a wild swing, loudly telegraphed. Alex reacted on instinct. He dodged and swung back, landing a solid punch to Adam's face that sent him heavily to the floor. Panting, Alex stepped back and shook the pain from his hand and arm. Fear and uncertainty poured down his spine as he watched Adam gather himself and push to his feet. Blood gathered at the corner of his mouth.

Alex felt himself clench at the sight of it and some of his fire at their game dimmed.

He might have stopped it altogether, but Adam came at him a second time, still sloppy, still not meaning it the way a truly committed man would. But he forced Alex to answer it. And Alex hit him again. Sent him sprawling.

Whatever idiocy this was it needed to stop. And the fact that he'd been cornered into it brought Alex's anger to the fore in spades. Somehow, even now, even here, the control lay in someone else's hands. And he was done, so done with being someone else's pawn. Adam started to rise again, and Alex darted in close, slugging him on the cheek to knock him back down.

Stay down! he wanted to scream. His knuckles throbbed. His wound burned in protest.

But he didn't scream.

If Adam wanted his violence, then he'd have it.

Alex grabbed the back of Adam's jeans while he bent, panting, toward the floor and pulled them down as far as he could, revealing the white, smooth ass he'd reveled in so many times already. Adam made a startled sound when Alex slapped him, leaving a red mark. Good. Let him be startled. Let him be surprised.

He grabbed him by the hair again and dragged him toward the bed. With his pants at his thighs, Adam struggled to follow and tripped as Alex threw him onto the mattress face down. It felt real now. Like revenge. Like he was owed the body before him for having played so far, compromised.

Adam could have moved if he wanted. Escaped. They both knew he was capable, and yet he lay deathly still.

Alex paused, aching, with a choice to make. He could be rough. Or he could be brutal.

He'd lost the line between fantasy and reality, but even so lacked the heartlessness sheer brutality required. He reached for the lube on the table and spread as little as possible onto himself with hurried, sloppy motions.

It was a spark of inspiration that had him locking the prosthetic arm straight and opening the fingers. He set the plastic, alien grip on the back of Adam's neck and leaned his weight slowly on, pinning him to the mattress. Their hips came into alignment, and Alex felt the hot welcome slide of Adam's ass against his cock. He rocked a little, teasing what was to come, sending shivers down his own spine.

He didn't want to wait. Couldn't breathe for the waiting.

He lined himself up, pinning Adam harder, and pressed. Pressed.

Adam mewled in protest, his body resisting, but this was what he wanted. What he asked for. And Alex thought angrily that he wouldn't be denied now. He snapped his hips and plunged into the tightest heat. Adam cried out in pain, limbs spasming, and gripped the sheets with his hands, but he said nothing, and now couldn't resist if he wanted.

Alex drew himself almost all the way out before slamming in again to feel the flesh beneath him quake, the breath scrape out, the skin slap. He set a quick, heavy pace, as rapacious as he could bring himself to be, and soon Adam arched to meet him, pushing his hips up while Alex held him down. They worked Adam's jeans the rest of the way off together, another sure sign of complicity, but his shirt would not come free, no matter how many tears Alex added.

He stroked into that heat, slick and silken, a stallion's breath billowing from his lungs as he chased, chased. Coiling heat on pleasured heat.

Alex stopped suddenly for the shock of it and pulled out. Adam barely had time to react to the loss of the weight on his neck when Alex grabbed him and flipped him like a doll. His eyes flashed when the false fingers circled his throat, and Alex watched his face as he applied pressure. Adam kept his arms at his sides and shut his eyes for a moment, shivering.

The new position was genius. A work of art. With one leg up on his shoulder, Alex slid in easily, slowly this time so he could feel every shudder.

Sweat dripped down his face as he picked up speed and he closed his hand around Adam's hard, leaking cock to bring him along. Adam's eyes popped open in surprise. And as Alex fucked him hard, matching stroke for stroke with his fist, he winced but never looked away.

The roll of a storm gathered in Alex's thighs, and he broke the eye contact, too much to bear.

He slowed his thrusts, keeping himself just on the edge of too much, too soon, and worked the cock in his hand faster. Short, practiced flicks of his wrist.

He urged Adam on. Heard his breathing change. Felt him arching into it.

Alex thrust up. In. Tightened his hand.

Adam bucked and arched harder, spilling cum over Alex's fingers and onto his own stomach. He writhed under the pinning weight on his throat, and Alex jerked into the heat of his body a few more times before his own climax unspooled, rolling up from the liquid warmth of his legs and spreading like pins to the tip of his tongue.

For a moment, he concentrated on breathing, bracing himself on the bed with his good arm while his muscles took their shape again. Then, carefully, he pulled the false hand away from Adam's throat, slipped out of him, and took a step back.

Blood congealed at the corners of Adam's mouth and eye in stark recrimination. And the skin there had taken on a darker hue.

Adam moved delicately now that he was free and slid from the bed onto the floor in a nearly boneless slither. His shirt hung on him in tatters.

Alex stared down at him, unsure at what they'd just done. He hadn't been kind. And . . . if he'd read something wrong . . .

He lowered himself down and sat uneasily at Adam's side, pressing the prosthetic's knuckles into the floor. Adam shook, breathing heavily, and then turned to press his forehead into Alex's shoulder just above the buckles.

A moment later, searing tears touched Alex's skin, and he felt his stomach go cold. He started to reach for him, then paused, fingers hovering and hesitant. Perhaps . . . he had . . . He frowned and felt fresh tears. Alex touched Adam's hairline with gentle fingers, and some kind of permission passed between them at the gesture.

Adam shifted, climbing onto Alex's lap and straddling him. He hugged around his middle and kept his face buried in Alex's neck while he cried.

Few people in the world had ever sought Alex Krycek for comfort; the muscles for it had atrophied. But he could feel them now, straining for life, and let his bruising hand wander where it wished, up and down the spine, rubbing deep swirls into soft, black hair. A litany in his mother's tongue whispered from his lips. A pull in the center of his chest despaired that it wasn't enough, that he was the wrong person for this kind of work. But Adam clung to him with a quiet, drowning desperation that he could no more ignore than stop breathing.

Eventually, by pieces, the shuddering stopped, and Alex fell silent as Adam's deep, pained breaths grew shallow. With a graceful expression of muscle and motion, Methos released him and drew away, turned without looking at him, and paced into the bathroom, leaving a shut door between them. Alex stared after him, suddenly empty and cold. He shifted and realized his ass had gone numb from the hard floor. He kept his eyes on the door as he got up and settled on the mattress, only looking away when he heard the patter of the shower go on. His hand ached from the bare knuckle punches, and he gazed down at the cuts and blooming bruises.

He'd been given a puzzle—his gut tightened—and he didn't know if he'd solved it wisely.

 

 

 

Adam came out of the bathroom with a towel slung low around his hips. He gazed at Alex with a cold indifference, the same black detachment that Alex had seen in his own reflection more than once. He felt far too vulnerable under its intensity. Adam clenched his jaw and then looked away.

"You shouldn't be around me right now," he said, words heavy with a growl. Then padded out of the room.

Alex watched the muscles of his back as he walked away, the rejection piercing him like a dull knife, tearing its way in from pressure alone. He let it hurt for a moment, indulgently, because these were the pains of real people living real lives. Then he got up and starting picking his way across the room, collecting his clothes and one of Adam's shirts that he'd claimed, like pieces of shattered glass. He breathed around the ache in his chest and checked his possessions, few as they were. Wallet, keys, holster, gun.

He eyed the desk in the corner and went over before he could talk himself out of it. On too fine a piece of paper, he wrote the phone number for an answering service and didn't bother to sign his name.

He imagined himself invisible as he prowled into the living room on silent feet. His jacket lay over the back of the couch. It shushed as he picked it up, the only sound in the whole apartment, and he touched the repair Methos had made. Sutured bullet hole, dry cleaned lining.

Alex slipped it on, and it was like donning a different life—one with more weight than he thought he might bear. It pulled at his shoulders, enhancing each pain. He glanced up to where Adam stood in the kitchen, facing away still.

It shouldn't hurt half this much. He shouldn't've let it hurt at all.

As he passed by the kitchen, heading toward the door, he couldn't resist stealing a glance in. Methos braced himself against the counter with white knuckles and seemed not to notice his presence.

Just so.

He tucked his head and pressed on.

"Alex . . ."

The soft, strained word brought him back to the doorway, flushed with cautious hope.

Adam opened his eyes to look at him then, and for a moment he was the man who had left this morning. His eyes held tenderness and fear and the compassion to care for a stranger.

"I . . ." His face tensed, and Alex watched with rapt horror as the man he knew melted away. In his place, glittering obsidian and cold rage.

He took a step in Alex's direction—the quiet advance of a hunter—and then stopped. Methos grimaced in pain and then flung himself at the metal fridge, beating his fists against it hard. He roared in frustration and then sank against the surface with a sound like a whine, letting his arms fold over the back of his head.

"There is so . . . much . . . hate," he said in a ragged voice. He took a few gasping breaths, and Alex had to hold himself still. "I'm trying," he went on, still shaking with strain, "I'm trying not to hurt you. I don't want to. But if you're here, if you're . . . convenient. I . . ." He pulled back from the fridge door and wrapped his arms around his middle, fixing Alex once again with a gaze that seemed his own. He shuddered and shook his head, at a loss. At a loss.

"I can take a little pain," Alex heard himself say. Was he so desperate for a passing kindness as that?

Sorrow struck deep in Adam's features. "Oh, child, not like this . . ." He squeezed himself tighter and bent a little, struggling. He lurched and caught himself on the edge of the doorway. And they stood so close. Alex suppressed the urge to draw back in fear, because he would not let his weakness rule. They gazed at one another, and Alex's heart thumped hard.

"I don't want to be one of them," Adam whispered.

Alex frowned at him, fear whistling into his blood. "Them?" He couldn't know.

Adam stared at him with a look of too keen understanding. "You have a them. And I won't . . ." His breathing came harsh, and he grimaced as he tried to control whatever it was that crawled through him. "You can stay with Mac, if you need—"

"No." He hadn't meant it to sound as clipped as it did. As afraid. His thoughts were on the past and no one needed to know about the past. No one needed to understand. He backed away and turned to flee on the wings of shame, but doubt made him pause, look back. His knuckles ached along with the rest of his arm. He had to know. Would never forgive himself if he didn't know. He found Adam watching him, clinging to the wall for life, the cuts by his eye and mouth startling scabs. "Did I do what you wanted?" he asked, aiming for something casual and failing. Somehow his gaze ended up on the floor, and he had to lift his eyes to his lover's face, uncertain that he wanted to.

Adam knew what he was asking, what he desperately needed to know. He nodded and swallowed hard. "Yes . . ." he said in a small voice. "Thank you."

Relief let loose a coiled tension in Alex's body, and he could breathe again. He nodded at him and then looked away, still nodding. "You . . . killed someone tonight," he said rasping soft. At the lack of an answer, he glanced back into Adam's intense stare. "The boy," he added.

Adam's eyes fell shut, something like relief passing through his expression as he hung his head.

"I thought he was only killing good ones," Alex said.

Adam nodded, weary and unable to face him. "He was. But 900 years of rage just found a body that can use it."

Cautiously, like raising his hand to a tiger, Alex reached out. Adam jerked at the contact, then eased as Alex drew the backs of his bruised knuckles down his cheek. Soft. Accepting. The only help he might offer.

"Thanks for the bandages," Alex whispered, watching a sad smile cross Adam's face. And then he left, swift as shadow before anything could change his mind.