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He glanced around the space before he entered, bedroom door, bathroom door, windows. Even as he stepped inside on silent feet, his senses stretched for the sound of a misplaced creak or someone's breathing. At the phantom edge of his memory, Alex had had a home-a real home. Full of tender words, comforting touches, and a safe bed protected from monsters.

Now, he had this. The next in a never-ending line of stock white walls and shabby kitchens, bought monthly in cash.

After a moment's silent sweep, his caution settled its claws, and he closed the door behind him with an audible click, accepting that for tonight he was safe enough. He threw the locks, hung his coat, and tried to roll the ache of a long night of surveillance from his shoulders. In the darkness, he crossed the acre of empty floor to the couch and set his gun on the side table, barrel facing east. His stomach growled, and he sighed at the thought of what sat in the fridge. Arched a weary eyebrow at the idea of having the energy to cook.

It was Friday.

Alex glanced at the answering machine, which sent out a red zero glow. He reached for the phone base on the table and jabbed at the speakerphone button, then dialed the number and access code.

He always checked on Fridays.

His gaze drifted up toward the window and into the silver-blue of the DC night.

"You have . . . one . . . new voice message," the phone declared, and Alex glanced back down at it with a frown. "First message . . ."

"Alex . . . ?" A whisper, rushed. That accent.

"Adam?" he said automatically, staring down at the speaker as his pulse jumped.

"Alex, please . . ." Hesitant, barely audible. "I need . . . I need you to find me." His voice, small as it was, quivered. "I don’t know where I am. They won’t stop," he breathed, the sound cracking with a sob. ". . . Findme."

Alex's heart beat wild against his ribs as he strained to listen, too shocked to even inhale for the silence it would break.

"It's . . . a medical facility," Adam went on. "I heard them say, um . . . merchandise. And something about . . . purity, I don't-" He sucked a breath and went silent.

In the background, voices.

Alex's body went cold at the words, and he braced his hand against the table as he leaned closer to the phone and the sound of Adam's ragged breathing.

"There's . . . blue tile floor. I see a centrifuge, a Beckman Coulter. There's-" His voice cut off again into shuddering gasps for air. Then, "Shit."

"Adam?" He couldn't help himself, or stop the panic rising in a hot cloud.

This time the voices in the background turned to shouting, then loud bangs.

"Adam!"

Metal on metal scraped and screaming, Alex heard a door bust open.

And then the call abruptly cut off.

He stood, panting in the darkness down at the phone while the automated message asked him if he wanted to save the message or delete it.

Cold and hot. Cold and hot.

They had Adam.

We have Methos, his brain amended. Merchandise and purity. Special terms for their special cause.

Slowly, he lifted his hand and pressed the speaker button, leaving the question unanswered.

The message had been left three days ago.

Three days.

Numb, Alex sank onto the couch and replayed everything Methos had said, but mostly, mostly, hearing his fear. His plea. Find me.

Alex scrubbed his hand over his face and then held it over his mouth as the implications started to trickle into his consciousness. An immortal in Syndicate hands. Someone with miraculous healing. Someone who would not die. Horror solidified into a ball in his stomach, and his thoughts circled, stuck in its gravity.

Adam.

Methos . . .

It was hard to define the difference, though he'd always been able to feel it-a climate change in personas, both real. He could see his face, and his thoughts got no farther before he felt sick.

For a short time, Alex gave into it, indulged in the worry and let himself stare into the shape of the silver-blue light on the wall until his skin felt the same shade of cold and prickled everywhere. Then he drew a breath as deep as it would go, stretching ribs, shoulders, back, and exhaled, long and controlled. Centering.

The Syndicate had Methos.

And for as long as he remained useful, Alex had the Syndicate.

 

***

 

Sebastian Neville, the Well-Manicured Man, liked his tea with lemon and demerara sugar; he liked his blowjobs quick and noisy; he liked his potatoes roasted in duck fat with a bit rosemary.

One of these facts was more immediately useful than the rest.

Alex opened the door to Neville's office, a plush, darkly wooded affair almost too cliché to be real. But then, the same could be said for the Syndicate as a whole. The Well-Manicured Man glanced up from the papers on his desk and regarded Alex with a question in his expression. Alex moved a few easy steps closer and tilted his head in consideration.

"You look tired," he told him.

Neville set the paper in his hands down, drawing a breath. "Do I?"

It was an opening. Something Alex could work with.

He sauntered closer, conscious of the flex of his muscles and the way the shirt he'd chosen clung, making him look soft, inviting. He settled slowly on the corner of the desk, allowing his legs to swing open just enough to be natural-one knee close enough to be touched.

"It's around the eyes," he said, keeping his voice low.

Neville's gaze traveled down the stretched-tight fabric over his thigh, and Alex struggled to maintain his neutral, caring smile for a moment. Just a moment. Then the old man inhaled and looked away, off toward a paneled wall and some far more distant visions Alex didn't care to fathom.

"It weighs on me, the things we've had to do. The choices we've had to make," he said.

Alex made a small sound of assent, drawing the Well-Manicured Man's gaze, and looked down. "I know it does." He said it as gently as he could.

Time was once he'd have been able to give the old man a proper neck massage, lull him into a drowsy bliss with practiced ease. Alex glanced up to find Neville looking more weary than he had a minute ago-the power of suggestion. He got up and moved behind the old man's chair, resting a calming hand on his shoulder before pressing his thumb against tense muscle at the base of his neck and rubbing in small circles.

After a minute, the old man sighed and relaxed, sinking a little deeper into his chair. Alex stared down at the top of his head and focused on the motions of his fingers, the pressure. He could feel more of the tension leech out, and Neville made a pleased sound.

"How about I get you some tea?" Alex offered, sweet and dutiful.

The old man reached up and slid his hand over Alex's own. It felt cool and dry, and Alex froze. Revulsion bucked through him, and he had to fight to keep from pulling away. He let the old man's hand sit, with caressing fingers, and clenched his jaw until it hurt while his stomach kicked.

"That would be lovely, thank you," Neville said, and gave his hand a squeeze before he let go.

Alex drew away and hid his uneasiness as he strode for the door to the ante room and its clean, cool air.

He returned with a full tea service, the fingers of his false hand hooked into the handle of the tray. He set it down without causing a rattle and unhooked the fingers with an expert twist of upper arm and shoulder. With Neville's drowsy eyes on him, Alex poured, squeezed, added three spoonfuls of sugar, and then stepped back with a deferential nod. His stomach tightened as the old man lifted his cup and then knotted as he took a small sip.

"Perfect as usual, Alex," he intoned.

Alex remembered to breathe and glanced at the clock on the wall as he forced a grin. "Thank you, sir." He bowed his head. "Let me know if you need anything."

Neville nodded with the cool dismissiveness of a man who had no intention of ever doing otherwise, and Alex left him to his tea. He pulled the door shut behind him and sagged against it for a moment, sighing out his frayed nerves. He checked his watch. In a half hour or so, the rohypnol should have taken full effect.

Alex sat on the closest couch and rubbed his hand over his face as he settled in to wait. Patience was the last thing on his mind, and the adrenaline coursing through him from the risk he was taking demanded action. Not sitting.

His thoughts were swooping bats, flapping with midnight fears and darting between awful possibilities. He cringed from their every turn. It troubled him with the primal urge to flee, and he clenched his knee in a tight grip to keep from bounding up and pacing.

Adam needed him.

And yet he was here, playing slave boy to a man who would be king.

Alex had called back twice already to listen to it, and even now heard Adam’s voice haunting him, begging him.

The fourth day, now.

He tried to shake the thoughts out and focus. He was helping. Just not in the way the animal in him wanted, not with blood. Alex bent, resting his forehead against the heel of his hand, and let the seconds grind.

An eon passed in the quiet of the ante room. Stars died and reformed, while he concentrated on the sensation of breathing. And eventually it was enough.

Alex checked his watch. Thirty-five minutes had passed, and he hadn't heard a sound from Neville's office. He stood and gathered a reasonable question on his tongue as he slowly opened the door and leaned in.

The Well-Manicured Man sat slumped in his chair, head sagging to his chest. For once, he looked as elderly as he should.

"Sir?" Alex asked, venturing in a step further.

No response.

He didn't try to hide his smile.

Alex retreated back into the ante room for a moment and returned with a blanket, neatly folded. He moved the empty teacup safely onto the tray and then set about tucking the blanket around the old man, as though he really had just fallen asleep in his favorite chair. He left it folded just under the man's chin.

As an afterthought, Alex pressed his fingers to Neville's neck to check for a pulse. He did need him alive, after all. The vaccine program against Purity would collapse without him. Alex found the sign of life he was looking for, then rolled the desk chair back to give himself space at the computer.

He needed something that would give him an idea of where to start. The Syndicate's holdings were vast, and he had never been privy to all that went on.

Alex tapped a key and stared at the login screen that was asking for a password. In his experience, people were predictable. A good portion of the population used passwords anyone with basic information about them could guess.

He tried the old man's birthday. Rejected.

Wife's name.

Daughter's name.

Alex turned a scowl toward Neville's unconscious form and narrowed his eyes. A man like him would never mix his work and home life.

He glanced back at the screen and the empty box prompting him.

They'd had . . . favorites. All of them.

His fingers hovered over the keys for a second, and then he typed in a name from the old days.

He should've felt elated at gaining access, but instead he filled with an empty sort of sorrow. It passed through his chest, stripping off layers he didn't have time to examine. He blinked at the screen, now showing him a desktop and several folder icons.

Facilities, even secret ones, must have bills. One of their many shell corporations would have to be paying to keep the lights on. Someone, somewhere had an order for centrifuges with a delivery address.

Alex dug. Through boring paperwork and meticulously kept files. He glanced at the documents on the desk for a Halcyon Diagnostics and recalled seeing the name repeated in Neville's inbox. He'd been having quite the conversation with arthur@halcyonresearch.com, though most of it in acronyms Alex didn't know and didn't have time to research. He picked up a folder emblazoned with the company's logo and found himself flipping through an investor's report. The headings for the divisions suggested pharmaceuticals. He paused on the highlights page and scanned through a paragraph that described their latest breakthrough in gene mapping.

His pulse beat a little faster, and Alex went back to the computer. He did a search for Halycon's name in the file system and smirked with derision when that actually produced a result. For a secret society, a little security might not go amiss. Inside that folder were three more: Denver, Detroit, and Washington.

Alex clicked through and found photos of Neville at the ribbon cutting for the Denver and Detroit facilities. No photos in the Washington folder. He wasn't sure what that meant. But the other two . . . Promo shots of Neville at the ceremony, Neville at the reception, Neville gladhanding smiling employees in the spotless hallways.

With blue tile floors.

"Blyad," Alex breathed, and scowled at the screen. Denver and Detroit both fit the only description he had. Aside from the centrifuges.

He thought for a moment, tapping his finger on the mouse, and then looked up the number for the Beckman Coulter sales department.

Alex paced and focused his breathing, casting a watchful eye Neville's way just in case. He arranged the pieces of his story roughly and tested smiling a few times. Then he shook his head with a frown and tensed, worrying his lower lip until anxiety suffused his body. It altered his breathing and changed his steps, and quickly felt utterly real.

He picked up the phone from Neville's desk and dialed.

"Thank you for calling Beckman Coulter. If you would like to speak to our Sales Department, please press one," the automated voice said.

Alex punched 1 and waited, the muscle in his jaw twitching. Someone picked up immediately.

"Good evening, my name is Sandy, can I have your name and company, please?"

"Hi, uh. Yeah. Michael Polyak, Halcyon Research," Alex said, not too smoothly.

"And how can I help you today, Michael?"

"Well . . . I don't know. Exactly. But-but I didn't know who else to call. The IRS, they're doing an audit of our company. And these people, apparently, don't believe in paperwork." He swept his arm toward the empty room and useless phantom, then forced a smile and a laugh. "I'm supposed to produce an inventory of company assets, right? Only-only no one around here has ever heard of a filing cabinet. So I have orders, but no invoices, no shipping information. Did we pay? Did we get anything? Who knows!"

Sandy made a small sound to indicate that she was listening.

Alex let a thread of shrill panic into his voice. "And of course, they want these reports in the morning. Like, like I can just whip it up out of nothing. Years of bad paperwork, and I'm supposed to fix it in a few days! With no help! And I just-" He cut himself off and sucked a calming breath. "I'm sorry . . . I'm sorry. I just need to know if you can send me copies of the invoices for the equipment we probably bought from you. And where they were shipped. If you have it."

He swallowed hard and pressed the phone painfully against his ear.

The woman hummed in a way that did not sound encouraging. "Technically invoicing is another department. And they're-"

"Closed, I know," Alex said. It was evening, after all. "That's why I'm calling you. If it could wait, I would wait. But I've been up- What time is it?" He paused a beat. "Jesus . . . I'm at the end of my rope here. My boss, he . . ." He trailed off, listening for her breathing over the phone, and then spoke in a miserable whisper. "I don't think I can disappoint him again. I just . . . Please."

Silent seconds stretched.

". . . Halcyon, huh?" Sandy said finally, her voice a little quieter.

"Yes." The hope in his voice was real enough.

He heard the clack of typing.

"Do you know what kind of equipment?"

"Centrifuges."

"Mm, yeah. I see the order." Her voice dropped lower still. "This isn't my department, so I don't know if this is everything you need or not but if you want, I can fax you what I have."

Alex sighed in relief. "Thank you. You have no idea. Sandy. Thank you."

He heard her smile. "Fax number?"

"Right, yes." He found the number on the machine in the corner of Neville's office and read it off.

"It'll take me a couple of minutes, but I'll get this to you as soon as I can."

Alex smiled, his voice warming with genuine pleasure. "You're a life-saver."

She giggled at that. "Well . . . good luck. I hope it helps."

"Thanks. I'm sure it will."

He hung up the phone and breathed another sigh of relief.

Alex moved to the other side of the room where he could keep an eye on his sleeping patron and the fax machine. Ten minutes passed before the line to the fax rang and picked up. Alex's eyes flicked to Neville, asleep in his chair, but he did not move at the crackle and whine of the connection.

As the machine spit out pages, Alex started reading. Halcyon had ordered 10 centrifuges of the same make and model at nearly $10,000 a piece, with a delivery address in Detroit.

Elation battered his heart, and though he was far from done, relief unknotted his shoulders with warm fingers.

Alex took the pages and folded them neatly. Satisfied that he'd found all he needed, he closed the computer back out to its login screen and adjusted the folder on the desk. He nudged the old man's chair back into place, staring at his face for signs that he was coming around, and then slipped out of the office to wait. Every instinct told him to leave right then and be on the next plane to Detroit, but he had to play this hand through.

It took another couple of hours before the door to the office opened. Alex jumped at the sudden sound of the knob turning and looked up from his book. The Well-Manicured Man hovered in the crack of the door and blinked at him in bewilderment.

"I see you're finally awake," Alex said, smiling as he set his book aside.

Neville frowned at him a little and then gazed around at the floor as though he'd lost something. He touched a hand to his chest, where the fold in the blanket had been, and gazed vaguely back in the direction of his chair. When he turned his eyes on Alex again, some of the confusion had gone out of them.

"You looked like you needed the rest," Alex offered, shrugging. "I didn't want to wake you." And the old man nodded along with this reasonable explanation.

He hadn't said anything yet, and worry tickled at Alex's neck. He waited a beat and then stood, letting his anxiety fuel a mock concern. "Sir?"

Neville snapped to the sound of the word and drew himself up. He looked like he might say something then and not waver in the doorway like a doddering fool, but the drug was still working against him. It left you cloudy for a while and unable to remember. "Just . . . tired," he muttered, not looking convinced.

"Would you like me to take you home?" Alex moved a step closer.

Neville thought about it a bit too long, then bobbed his head in a nod. "That would be lovely. I'll just . . ." He trailed off and turned into his office, letting the door swing open after him.

"Get your coat?" Alex followed him.

Neville made a sound and waved a hand in Alex's direction as he ambled to the coat rack to gather his things and be driven home to his waiting wife by his dutiful assassin.

Chances were he wouldn't remember anything come morning, but one could never be too cautious.

 

***

 

Alex pulled the janitor's closet door closed behind him and then grabbed the handle of the mop with both hands. A pass key hung from his hip, and Alex tucked his chin as he shoved the mop bucket forward down the light blue-tiled hall. A pair of scientists in white coats rounded the corner ahead of him and whisked by, only taking as much note of his presence as necessary to not collide.

Alex breathed out slowly after they passed and kept his pace.

He'd spent two days casing the facility, watching workers come and go. He'd managed to lift a card from a woman in a coffee shop just long enough to get a look at the floor layout and elevator system before "returning" it to marble tiles of the lobby. The Halcyon operation was large enough that they occupied several floors of an office building in downtown Detroit with its own underground parking garage and-based on the choices available in the service elevator-underground something else.

Good thing every floor, no matter how secret, still needed cleaning.

Bad thing was he had no idea where Adam was being kept, which meant checking every room in every corridor.

Sometimes, he stopped to actually mop in an effort to keep up appearances, and that only slowed the search down. Anxious teeth bit at the back of his neck while he swabbed, blending into the background. No one spoke to him, though he imagined that the next one, the next one, was going to notice his face. Or maybe the arm. People tended to notice the arm.

His mind spun its wheels as he charted each lab and kept his compass pointed toward the way out. West hall. South hall. Doubt clenched his stomach. Maybe . . . maybe he'd been wrong. Maybe Denver. Jesus, what if he'd been wrong? What if all this time-

He peered through the window of what looked like an empty lab space and caught a glimpse of something glowing under an intense overhead light.

Alex stopped and leaned in until his nose almost touched the glass.

His heart suddenly pounded, and he almost dropped the mop.

All he could see from this limited angle was a face-Methos-a surgical table, monitors. He stared for a second, too stunned to do anything, and then very slowly reached for his key card. His fingers gripped clumsily, and he took a breath to steady himself before swiping it through the reader.

The access light flicked to green, and Alex quickly opened the door, hauling the mop and bucket in after him. He kicked them aside and turned to-

Everything stopped but his stomach. That took a violent, kicking churn. He had a second of sucking in air that tasted of iron before his mouth went slick. He doubled over the bucket and vomited, throat burning with bile as he coughed.

His eyes watered, and he shook as he spit out bitter fluid and gasped for cleaner air.

They . . . had him vivisected.

Alex slowly braced his hand against his knee and pushed himself up to standing. His legs wavered and stomach flopped, but he was more prepared for it this time. Shallow, shallow breaths. He wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve and took a step closer, inching his way.

Methos lay peeled open on a metal slab, his limbs and neck strapped down. They had him gagged, too. Presumably to muffle the screaming. The flaps of skin and muscle of his abdomen were secured by clamps to expose his organs for study. To keep the wound from healing closed. Everything glistened with a sheen of blood. Clamps stuck out of him like pins holding sections of entrails separated for what purpose he did not want to imagine. And his liver looked . . . too small and too bleeding to be natural.

Alex pressed the back of his hand over his mouth and turned to look at the monitors that beep-beeped steadily, assuring him that Methos was alive. A paltry and unmerciful comfort. Alex swallowed down the bitter burning in his throat and urged himself into action. They needed to leave, quickly. Which meant Methos needed to heal. Or at least heal closed.

He forced down every emotion but anger and reached for the scissor-like clamps. Methos bled more as they were released, but Alex couldn't stop. Couldn't wait. He hadn't been able to monitor the rotations inside the building. Had no idea how often the researchers came in to check the . . . progress.

Alex set the last bloody clamp into a metal dish and then reached for the vices holding open the skin. They released like Vise-grips, and he had to circle the table to undo them all. He hadn't thought himself squeamish until just then, wincing so hard he couldn't look as he pressed each of the four flaps down into place.

He caught himself not breathing and had to force in air as he rounded the table again and glanced up at the IV bags. That had to be what was keeping him under sedation. Alex turned the knobs to stop the flow and then carefully slipped the needles out of Methos's arm, as though he could feel it, as though ripping them out would have left a bruise.

The buckles strapping his ankles down came loose easily enough. Alex moved to do the left arm, deft and almost distracted with listening for someone approaching outside. He slid around the top of the table to get the right arm free, and Methos's eyes fluttered.

Oh.

Alex frowned and glanced at the cross-wise incision still dripping blood.

"Shit . . ." he whispered. 

Methos's eyes rolled open, and he started to move, groggy and uncoordinated.

"No!" Alex hissed and grabbed at Methos's left hand as he started to reach toward the source of his pain. Methos's face twisted, and he struggled feebly. "Adam!" Alex rasped, hovering right above him. He held his wrist steady. "Adam, look at me."

The struggling paused, and Methos blinked at him, frowning as he tried to focus. His lips moved around the gag in his mouth, and tears built and fell from the corners of his eyes.

"Listen to me. You haven't healed yet, so, I need you to keep your hand"-he moved Methos's hand so it lay on his bare chest-"right here. Okay?" Alex pressed it in place, holding it there. "Okay?"

Methos nodded vaguely, staring up at him. Spit leaked out around the gag, and the tears didn't stop coming.

Alex undid the last restraint and then guided both Methos's hands to the buckle behind his neck holding the gag in place. His eyes drifted closed in concentration, and a second later he turned his head just enough to spit the ball from his mouth and suck in a gasp. His face contorted in pain, arms jerking, and Alex touched his cheek gently.

"I'm sorry. I didn't-" Methos's eyes rolled, and then squeezed shut as he let out a whimper. "I thought it'd take longer to wear off," Alex told him. He glanced up at the door and swallowed. "Adam." He shook him a little. "Hey, look at me."

Methos's eyes drifted open again, and it was difficult not to see Adam Pierson, young and terrified-an innocent suffering for Alex's skullduggery.

He looked so pale.

"I can't carry you out of here." He ran his thumb across Methos's cheek. "Understand? I can't. As soon as it heals closed, you're gonna have to help me."

Methos swallowed slowly and nodded, a faint gesture of friction against Alex's palm, and then went slack. Alex stared down at his face, comforted only by the continued beeping on the monitor. He drew back and then concentrated on the red, oozing lines across Methos's abdomen, willing them to close. It just had to be enough to keep him . . . together.

"Sorry about this," Alex muttered, then picked at one of the edges of the incision, testing the level of resistance.

Methos arched instantly in pain and made a small mewling sound. Alex snatched his hand back, but he had the information he needed.

"Hey." He tapped Methos on the cheek. "Adam, I need you to get up. Can you sit up?"

Methos blinked at him, bleary eyed, and slowly tried to roll onto his side. A hand went automatically to his stomach as the pressures on his wounds changed. Alex grabbed his shoulder to steady him.

"Okay?" he breathed.

Methos nodded, his distant gaze settling on Alex's chest. He took quick, shallow breaths, his whole body rocking with each one.

They had, of course, taken his clothes, and if they hadn't straight up burned them, Alex held no illusions that he'd be able to find them. He let Methos balance for a moment before letting go and then started to strip out of the janitor's uniform, revealing a jumper of the same color beneath. He handed Methos the dark blue shirt and a moment later bent to slide the pants up his dangling legs.

It took the both of them to get him dressed, the old man's fingers too uncoordinated to manage buttons and Alex's one hand unpracticed at working them from this side. He'd kept the monitor connected so as not to set off alarms, but any minute now . . . any minute.

"We have to go," he said.

Methos slid off the table, holding the pants on, and kept sliding. Alex scooped him under the arm to catch him, almost too late.

"Sorry," Methos muttered, voice paper thin. He looked even more gaunt standing. With his free hand he managed the zipper, at least, then sunk heavily against Alex's side, clinging to his neck with feeble strength.

Alex adjusted his grip and muscled them toward the door. The heart monitor still attached to Methos's hand reached the end of its cord.

"Ready?"

A nod. And then Methos jerked his hand, stripping the monitor off. He reached for the door handle and had enough power and fear in him to fling it open and out of their way.

Alex practically carried him with one arm, hurrying down the hall from one lab to another. He'd memorized the empty ones and darted between them, waiting and watching for anyone coming before making another rushed journey. Not a minute after the alarms had started to go from the disconnected monitor, a glut of scientists rushed by. He had no choice but to chance it before they saw the empty room and immediately turned around.

Methos weighed a ton. Practically dead weight, although he tried to carry himself and run under his own power. The bare hallways left no place to hide. Just long expanses of too much exposure. Alex wanted to laugh. At his idiocy, at this hopelessness. He still had his gun strapped underneath his prosthetic. He'd have to drop Methos to use it.

Alex held back in their current hiding spot as a scientist and a security guard jogged by heading toward the East wing. Alex tightened his grip on Methos's waist. The elevators were at the nexus, still far from the janitor's closet. One more dash to the closet. They just had to make it to the closet.

"Now!" Alex hissed, and Methos opened the door with his free hand.

They ran.

A potato sack race, dragging kind of run, but Alex could have hauled a car if he'd needed to. Sweat slid down his spine and made his hand damp as he gripped and lunged.

The door, Jesus Christ, the door.

Methos opened it, and Alex threw him inside just as-

"Hey!"

Alex spun toward the voice, using his body to block the doorway. A blonde woman with severe eyebrows and a business suit on under her white coat regarded him with an intense stare.

"Did you see anyone come by here?"

Alex's eyebrows lifted on their own. "Wh- yeah. Whole bunch of people in lab coats." He gestured down the hall and around the corner. "All went running down that way." He frowned a little in concern. "Is . . . there something wrong?"

The woman glanced him up and down, and he could feel his worth being rung out in dollar signs. She gave him a curt shake of her head. "Nothing. It's fine." Her expression darkened as she turned on her heel and stalked off in the direction Alex had indicated.

Soon as she was gone, he stepped into the closet and closed the door behind him, letting out a slow exhale. He flicked on the light and found Methos leaning against the shelving and holding himself up. He offered a questioning look but saved his energy for breathing.

Alex knelt down and opened the duffle bag he'd stashed here earlier. He pulled out a white lab coat and held it up.

"Put that on," he said.

After a second of processing, Methos took the coat from him and started the arduous procedure of controlling his limbs well enough to manage it. While he worked, Alex removed a pair of socks from the bag. Like the buttons, he had no muscle memory for dressing someone else with only one hand. And Methos had no balance to be able to stand long enough on one leg. They had to wait until the coat was in place to tackle such a task.

The simple things. Jesus, it was always the simple things. Their window for escape was ticking closed while they tried to manage socks. My kingdom for a horse.

But they did manage. And Alex in his infinite brilliance had brought loafers instead of something with laces. He left those for Methos to put on and went back into the bag for the final ingredient. He produced a squeeze bottle of deepest red and made Methos hold it in one hand.

"All right. Squeeze out a little bit."

Methos frowned without answering and did as he was told, squeezing a small amount of red goo onto Alex's fingers. Alex smirked at him, spread the goo around a little, and then swiped it under Methos's nose and down his mouth. Methos jerked back, but Alex kept painting him red, shoving some of the goo up into his nostrils for good measure.

"Fake blood," Alex told him. He wiped his fingers off on the rag dangling from his waistband, then took the bottle and drizzled some more blood over Methos's shirt and onto the white lab coat.

Dazed, Methos blinked down at himself and up at Alex in confusion.

Alex inspected his work for a second, then tossed the bottle into the trash.

"Just follow my lead, okay? The prisoner hit you, took your key card. Just . . . act out of it."

Methos narrowed his eyes at him and huffed, but he nodded.

With a shift of his shoulder, Alex brought the prosthetic up and locked the elbow at 90 degrees. He grabbed some rolls of paper towels and stacked them onto the arm.

"I'm going to check if it's clear. Then get you out," he said quickly.

Methos nodded, the makeup disconcertingly realistic as his head bobbed unsteadily.

Alex took a calming breath, then opened the closet door and backed out into the hallway. He checked left. Right. Then pulled open the door again and dropped the towels with a unlocking shrug of his shoulder.

Methos lurched toward him, and Alex caught him around the waist just as they'd done before. He kicked the door shut behind them and started for the elevators. Methos tipped his head back and pinched his nose shut stumbling along at Alex's side.

As they neared the nexus, a small team of security guards emerged from around a corner down the West wing. Alex kept up pace, but the guards jogged directly for them, and he couldn't help but feel his heart start to hammer. His fingers dug into Methos's side.

The lead guard held up a hand to stop them as they got close. His blue eyes felt like ice.

"What happened?"

"I don't know. I found him like this in the hall," Alex replied.

"'it me," Methos said, but his voice was muffled and weak.

The guard frowned at him. "What?"

With a pained sigh, Methos released his nose and tried again. "He hit me. Took . . . took my key card." He forced the words out with effort and went back to holding his nose shut.

Alex exchanged a worried look with the guard. "Sir, he won't stop bleeding."

"Which way?" The guard stepped closer to Methos. "Did you see which way he went?"

Methos panted to build up his strength. "South," he breathed.

The guard nodded and shot a look to his men, then turned a stern eye on Alex. "Get him upstairs to the infirmary."

Alex nodded and answered with an automatic, "Yes, sir."

The cadre of guards turned toward the South wing at a jog, and Alex shuffled Methos close enough to the elevators to hit the button.

The longer they stood, the more Methos sagged. Alex strained to keep him standing.

"Hey! C'mon, I told you I can't do this on my own," he rasped.

Methos sucked a breath and took some of his own weight again.

Forever later, the elevator dinged, and the doors slid open. Alex leaned Methos against the wall so the handrail could hold him up and punched the button for the parking garage. He crowded in close and did not dare imagine that they were free yet. Methos looped both arms around Alex's neck and pulled him in, until their foreheads touched and their heavy breathing was the only sound.

The garage was only two floors up, and the elevator quickly came to a stop with a soft chime and a swoosh of doors. Alex gathered Methos to his side, wishing for all the world he had two arms so he could lead with a gun, and stepped cautiously out into the concrete cave.

He'd followed the real janitor home the previous night and parked in the spot nearest the elevators well before dawn, before any of the important people would have even woken up. He ushered Methos to the passenger door and left him leaning against the car just long enough to hit the unlock on the fob. Methos turned and pulled the door open on his own, but he couldn't quite work the coordination to get in without Alex placing his legs in for him.

He didn't know if he should be worried-if this was normal post-anesthesia or not. Alex tossed the car door shut and hurried around to his side. No one else had come out of the elevator bank, so he backed the car out at a normal speed, excitement and nerves rocketing through his blood like whiskey. He unclipped his borrowed key card and wiped it down with a soft cloth, then turned and leaned out the window to swiped it at the gate to exit. He dropped the card from between his swathed fingers into the concrete and pulled leisurely out onto a downtown Detroit street.

Methos breathed with short, shallow gasps. He turned, and Alex could feel his gaze burning his cheek. "Alex . . ." he said, speech coming slow and slurred.

Alex glanced at him, then at the rearview and side mirrors. "You should rest," he said gently, and avoided looking over at him again.

He'd staved off the guilt for the length of the mission, but they were out. And such things abided for the times of greatest triumph to sink in their teeth to feast.

Methos fell silent, and Alex assumed he'd fallen asleep. He drove with only the sounds of the car and the city, and the thoughts he could not escape, and the squeeze in his heart at the way Methos said his name.

They were an hour outside the city before Alex paid more attention to the road ahead than the road behind. He drove them into the darkness, racing against the encroaching edge of dawn. At the first rest stop on the interstate, Alex pulled into a far parking space and chanced going into the convenience store alone. He paid cash and returned with wet naps to clean off the fake blood and enough soda and energy drinks to last him.

Methos looked like he'd gored someone. Eaten out their heart. He stirred a little as Alex cleaned off the sticky syrup, but never woke. When he was satisfied that no one would suspect them immediately of murder, Alex disposed of the wipes, popped a can of Red Bull, and got them back onto I-90 E shooting through and endless tunnel of black.

 

 

 

Hours and a few more cans of caffeine later, Methos stirred. The highway hadn't even dreamt about a curve in 200 miles, so Alex had hooked the prosthetic to the steering wheel like an autopilot. He turned to the sound of a deep inhale and barely saw the outline of Methos's nose and cheekbone in the glow from the headlights.

"Where are we?" Methos asked, groggy and voice thick with sleep.

"Indiana," Alex replied. "Somewhere."

After a moment's contemplation. "Where are we going?"

Alex smiled. "The Catskills."

Methos made a small sound, a grunt of acknowledgment, and then his breathing dropped off again into the slow rhythm of sleep.

 

 

 

It was a ten hour drive, give or take, and Alex made it with only a stop for gas and rest in the parking lot long enough to swallow down some fries. They passed into the foothills and then the pines, shadows on either side of the road blocking out the stars. Alex left the interstate behind and turned onto the local roads that grew thinner the further they stretched.

Twenty minutes out from the last huddle of civilization, he turned the car onto a dirt trail and slowed to a crawl. A structure emerged from the darkness into the glow of the headlights, reflecting back stars of light from its flat windows. A single story log cabin squatted beneath the pines, quiet and comfortable amid the giants.

Alex put the car into park and cut the ignition. For a moment he sat in the silence, listening to the tick of the engine and waiting for the night forest sounds to filter into his senses. A cold-sounding wind rustled the pines, and he braced himself before getting out.

Methos hadn't woken, and Alex shook him after opening his door to rouse him. He opened his eyes slowly and blinked around, disoriented.

"C'mon," Alex said, offering his hand.

Methos ignored him and pushed himself up and out of the car under his own power. The effort showed, and he started to shiver almost immediately from the cold. Wordlessly, Alex hugged him to his side and walked him toward the door.

"It's off the grid, so we should be safe," he told him. They took the two steps up to the door, and Alex let Methos lean against the wall while he got his key. He pushed the door in and then motioned for Methos to come to him again.

Alex led him inside and straight for the couch, despite the utter darkness of the interior. It smelled a bit of dust and wood, a dry, disused odor that longed for a stiff spring breeze. Alex felt for the couch with his foot and then eased Methos down.

"Sorry about the cold," he said. "There's only the fireplace."

"It's all right," Methos replied, his voice shaking with a chatter of teeth.

Alex scowled and touched a hand to his shoulder briefly, "Stay here," before disappearing into the bedroom. He had only one closet, so it wasn't difficult to find, and came back into the living room bearing the heavier of the two comforters. By feel, he stuffed it behind Methos's back and draped it over his shoulders.

"Thanks," Methos breathed. A rustle of fabric followed the word, and Alex could picture him burrowing in. It felt very much like the literal least he could do.

They needed light. And heat. And Methos needed a change of clothes.

Alex hurried back out to the car and grabbed a duffle bag from the trunk. He dropped it just inside the open cabin door and dug out a flashlight from the side pocket. With the light clamped firmly in his prosthetic hand, Alex made his way around the side of the cabin to the generator. He'd spent extra to get one with a push-button and grinned in satisfaction as the engine roared to life at his command.

The lights inside the cabin came on at once, and in a while there'd be some hot water, too.

As he came back inside, he slowed, and a small, fond expression crossed his face. Methos had wrapped himself in the comforter and laid across the whole of the couch. Only his face and hair showed. Every few seconds he shook, and Alex's smile dropped into a frown.

He kicked the duffle bag further into the room and then headed for the fireplace. There was a time he could come up here and spend a weekend chopping wood for his fuel pile. Since the incident, he had to pay a local man to do it for him. He kept three cords on the property at all times, stacked on the side opposite the generator. Alex grabbed a nylon sack from the alcove next to the fireplace and went out to fill it with as many split logs as he could carry.

One nice thing about the fake arm, it didn't feel fatigue. If he kept it strapped for heavy lifting, he could carry more than he might have with a real one. He came back laden with enough wood to keep a heat fire going for a good half a day and kicked the door closed behind him.

Methos hadn't moved, and as he stood watching him for a second, he thought maybe the shivering had stopped too.

Alex grunted as he set the logs down quietly and went to work building a proper fire. He kept kindling and newspaper in a bucket near the fireplace and a grill lighter on the mantel. He'd have to build the fire in layers, saving the larger logs until a good bed of coals were going.

The initial flare of fire as the paper went up gave out a blast of heat that opened the pores on Alex's face as he waited for the kindling to go.

Satisfied that the fire would live, Alex pressed up to standing and stretched his aching limbs. He turned to gaze at the bundle of white on the couch. An affectionate surge in his chest brought a smile to his lips. But they faded under the guilt. Halcyon. The Syndicate. He'd avoided asking himself how they'd found Adam and where. Because-because the answer might not be one he was ready for.

Alex moved across the wooden floorboards like a wraith and crouched next to Methos's head.

"Adam?" he asked. How much could a man sleep? At the lack of reply, he reached out to push the blanket away. His fingers brushed against Adam's face, and it felt cold. Wrong.

Alex frowned and panic kicked his ribs. "Adam!" He tossed the blanket open, his heart a jackhammer, and felt for a pulse. A tremor built in his belly as he searched, held his breath, and felt . . . nothing.

His breath squeezed out, burning, as his stomach dropped.

He fell back, scrambling away with white stunned horror.

He'd died.

Quietly expired like the passing of a season, and Alex hadn't even noticed. He hadn't-

He blinked in confusion and confounded sorrow, staring at the corpse of his lover for the second time in as many meetings. It didn't make any sense. They'd gotten out. The drugs should have been wearing off not getting worse.

Alex swiveled, knees aching on the hard floor as he crawled closer. Reason told him this was temporary. That he'd wake up. But still . . . Had he been in pain and not said?

The guilt splashed red and black across his heart, and he touched Methos's cheek lightly with the backs of his fingers, stealing a moment he didn't deserve.

He knew what came next: the hours of waiting. Alex arranged Methos's limbs into a comfortable repose and dropped the comforter back over him in a tableau of peaceful sleep. Apologies crowded at the back of his teeth, but he clamped down and held them in. He had a few hours, now, to make the place hospitable, to scrub the surfaces clean and bleach everything of its blemishes.

 

 

 

He moved carrying a glass hollowness beneath his skin, a fragile working of guilt and doubt and unreasoned terror. Dead. Dead. Clinked against the sides.

He swept the floors. Aired the kitchen. Wiped the countertops. As Alex tucked the last corner of the fresh bed sheets, the glass crackled suddenly and cracked. His energy vanished up through the fissures, and he lifted his head with effort to stare out into the living room.

Tread heavy, he trudged to the chair opposite the couch and dropped into it. Exhaustion rolled over him, deepening every ache. His vision blurred as he stared at Methos, unmoving. And as the last fumes seeped out, he fell into dreamless sleep.

 

 

 

He bolted upright when Methos gasped to life and fell stumbling forward out of the chair and onto his knees. Methos was looking around, panicked, and struggling under the comforter.

“Hey. Hey!” Alex reached out and touched his face, cupping his cheek.

Methos swiveled wild eyes to look at him, still heaving from the shock of new life.

“Hey,” Alex said again, quieter this time.

Their gazes connected, and he could feel the recognition as it happened, a settling and a sigh. Methos wrapped his fingers lightly around Alex’s wrist and just looked at him while he got his breathing under control.

Then, he let go and started to sit up, and Alex drew his hand away.

"I don’t understand," Alex told him, eyeing his labored motions. "What happened? Why-why did you-"

Methos’s brow furrowed in concentration, and even that was slow to form. He licked his lips.

"Dehydration . . . I think." The words came out thick and ponderous, like he had to assemble each one from parts.

"De-" Alex blinked at him. "Fuck."

He jumped up, cursing himself, and retrieved a bottle of water from the kitchen. What kind of fool-

He’d been so weak, Alex’d thought . . .

He shook himself with a snarl and crouched in front of Methos as he offered him the bottle. His hand hovered close enough to catch it if it fell.

Methos managed, barely, to take a drink on his own and panted as he held the bottle back out. Alex took it, glancing at the water level.

"Little at a time," Methos breathed. He leaned back, letting his head lull. After a moment, he cracked open an eye. "It’s not your fault."

Alex snorted and pushed himself up to standing. Methos’s gaze followed him.

"I didn’t recognize the signs either," Methos offered, his voice as weak and breathy as it had been back on the slab.

Alex stared down at him, almost as pale as the blanket he was wrapped in, and felt his gut twist. Methos frowned and then shifted over on the couch, letting out a huff of effort when he was done.

It was a most obvious invitation, and Alex’s stomach ached harder.

He sat on the edge of the cushion at first, keeping a respectful distance. When he offered up the bottle, Methos sighed and took it, repeating the measured gulps from before.

Alex stared at him and drifted closer, all his attention on Methos’s lips, the motion of his throat. Alive. Whole. Alex brushed his fingers along his hairline, needing the reassurance of touch. Methos stopped to catch his breath, and Alex snatched his hand back. Guilt heated his neck, and he took the water bottle again before Methos dropped it.

Whole, but not unharmed.

Methos relaxed back, eyes shut, and Alex watched him, anxious that he had overlooked more obvious problems.

"Are you hungry?" he asked after a moment, feeling for the first time awkward in his presence. He had, more or less, kidnapped him to his home-a space Alex had shared with no other soul.

Methos drew a breath. Exhaled. Then leaned forward as he shook his head faintly. He gazed down at his hands and rubbed them lightly together as though making heat.

“How long has it been?” he asked, already sounding stronger.

Alex turned toward the chair he’d slept in, offering Methos the small privacy of not being seen.

“A week since you called me,” he said, low and even.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Methos lift his head to glance at him.

"That was fast."

Almost like he'd known where to look.

Alex tensed, and the anxious pain in his stomach turned nauseous. He leaned forward, mirroring Methos, and swiped a sweaty hand across his face, then held it over his mouth for a calming breath.

"Alex?"

He sounded concerned. He’d been . . . everything they'd done. Taken.

And he sounded concerned.

Alex shook his head, more at himself than anything, and spoke as he let his fingers fall away.

"The people who took you . . ." He swallowed, mouth dry. "They work for my employers." He felt the words drop heavy and damning and looked over with a rush of panic. "I didn’t know. I swear, I didn’t know."

Methos frowned back at him, the shapes of questions on his lips, but he kept silent.

"They thought . . ." How to explain? A conspiracy of secrets roosted on his ribs like crows. Secrets changed you. Made you stringy inside, sticky and black, and that became another secret in itself-one he had long managed to hide behind good looks and come hither smiles. He did not know what would happen if he gave up his secrets now.

Fear rattled through his hollows. And Methos watched him. And he did not want to lie anymore.

"They thought you were another successful hybrid," he said. "Someone else's. Not one of theirs.”

Methos’s eyes narrowed. "Hybrid . . . Hybrid what?"

A mirthless laugh boiled out of Alex, and he stared out the windows-flat sheets of black. “You wouldn't believe me if I told you.”

He heard Methos shift in response to the words, a shushing of fabric. “Try me,” he said with a hint of a challenge.

Alex cut him a look and held his gaze. "Alien."

Methos’s eyebrows shot up along with the corners of his mouth. He let out an amused breath.

Alex huffed and turned away with a bitter shake of his head and a hot flash of irritation . . . and, most crushing of all, disappointment. Ventured and lost. He started to get up, muttering curses to himself for his stupidity to hope, but Methos grabbed his arm.

"You're serious," he said slowly, surprised to find that it was true.

Alex let himself be anchored by the touch, and he gazed into Methos's confused, wondering eyes before nodding and then turning his attention to the floorboards.

“In 1947, something crashed outside Roswell, New Mexico,” he intoned, his silky voice filling the small, empty cabin.

“A weather balloon,” Methos said softly.

Not a weather balloon. An alien scout ship." He looked over. "I've stood on it." Alex swallowed as a ripple of horrifying memory passed over him and jerked his arm out from under Methos's hand. He stared at the floor. "There were no survivors," Alex went on, his voice flat and hypnotic, "but it was first contact. And more were coming. Highly placed men in our government got together and decided they would be the ambassadors of the human race.

“They covered up the crash, locked the evidence away. Turned out, the aliens were here to colonize. And these men . . . they were going to help them.”

“What? Why?

Alex turned to the emphatic tone. “Because the aliens were willing to wait for a hybrid to succeed if it meant billions of slaves who could survive in their terraformed atmosphere. It served their purpose. And the wait bought the conspiracy time to find a vaccine.”

Methos frowned again.

"Against the black oil they use to colonize hosts," Alex supplied. "They call it . . . Purity.”

Recognition flashed in Methos’s expression. It was one of the words he'd heard the doctors use.

There was a moment of silence as Alex tried to decide what else he should divulge and gauge if Methos by any measure believed him.

“They’re your Them,” Methos said gently, unexpectedly, and Alex blinked at him in surprise. Of everything he’d just said, that was what he took away? “The ones who hurt you,” he clarified.

Hurt. A tiny, clean word for what they’d done.

Alex nodded, just a little, and looked back at the window. “They needed soldiers. And servants. I was eleven when they made my parents an offer they couldn’t refuse. They didn’t know.” He shook his head with a jerking motion. “They might have guessed.” He swallowed hard; a weight on his chest made it difficult to breathe. “They made me what I am.” More secrets, dark and sticky. The words came out in a whisper.

“And what’s that?”

His jaw trembled as the truth flooded to the surface, never so close to being said. “Coward. Murderer. Whore.” He shrugged his good side, but Methos suddenly gripped his chin and turned him so they faced one another. The other man’s eyes blazed, and he breathed like bellows, chest heaving.

“Survivor.” Methos growled the word, fierce and defiant.

Alex stared at him, stunned as it sank in.

He was that too.

That always.

Methos held the gaze until all his strength left him, and then he sagged back against the cushions, panting. Alex offered him the bottle of water again, fighting the urge to touch his hair, his face.

Then, “You should get some rest. Can you stand?”

Methos nodded, and they rose together. Alex stayed close to offer his aid, and Methos lurched into his side so they could shuffle together. It was necessity-that was all. And Alex was careful not to enjoy the feel of his body or the reassurance of his warmth. He left Methos sitting on the edge of the bed as he got him a new, far less blood-sticky shirt, then urged him back once he changed. He left an open water bottle on the nightstand and flicked off the light-Methos was already asleep.

Alex left the bedroom door open and arranged himself a mostly comfortable spot on the couch.

For a full day, Methos did nothing but sleep and drink and eat whenever Alex instructed.

 

 

Dawn light cut dappled and golden through the bedroom window as Alex stood for a moment just watching Methos sleep. He ached looking at him, a deep tug in his belly and throat. He'd let himself have a few glancing touches over the last couple days, when it seemed innocent enough, when he thought it might be safe. And even so pondered for hours afterward if he'd been wrong to take. Touching was taking. Taking pleasure. Taking comfort.

He had little experience being a good person. Or a kind one. This stranger had made him want to be both. And yet . . .

Alex set his second favorite pistol on the nightstand and left on silent feet, with enough wood stacking the fire to last until he got back. There was only so much he could make from the canned food stores in the cabin, and he needed to check in with the Syndicate anyway just to see how far on or off the radar they might be.

 

 

Alex returned with a bag of groceries propped on his prosthetic. His breath rose in a frosty plume as he shoved the cabin door open with his good arm and stepped inside. His eyes lifted instantly to the bedroom door: open.

And the bed.

Panic struck his body like thunder. Hot cold, flash!

He darted in.

Left the door wide.

And jolted to a halt thumpthump thumpthump when Methos appeared in the kitchen doorway. He had his arms wrapped around himself and gave Alex a long, curious look.

Alex drew a breath and sighed, his whole body sagging in relief.

"Sorry," Methos said softly.

Cold wind whipped into the cabin. Alex turned on slightly shaky legs to close the door and then watched Methos watching him as he approached.

Alex stopped, his arm and the grocery bag forcing some distance. He swallowed.

"I thought-"

"I know." Methos's eyes crinkled at the edges.

Alex tried to think of something to do with his hand. Something that wasn't touching those lines with his fingertips. He exhaled, feeling the rest of the adrenaline wash out, and stared. Methos stared back and continued to fill the doorway. Alex leaned a little, like he might be able to squeeze by, and Methos finally responded by stepping back and out of the way.

He seemed . . . quiet. And Alex felt his gaze on his back as he set the groceries on the counter and started to unpack them. The silence grew deafening, with only the sound of the brown paper bag to fill it. Alex's gut twisted.

He cleared his throat. "How're you feeling?"

"Ravenous," Methos replied after a beat, drawing the word out like he savored its feel.

Alex paused as he set a package of meat down and turned to look over his shoulder. Methos offered an impish grin that Alex found himself unable to read. He turned back to his task, but it dug at him. Was it-what. A come on? His stomach sank at that.

He thought he should ask.

Then not ask.

Tension pulled his shoulders tighter. And the silence at his back screamed with something discolored.

But he'd been so careful . . .

Maybe. Maybe he shouldn't have touched at all.

The guilt crashed over him in a wave, and he clenched a jar of peppers until his hand hurt. His teeth ached from grinding his jaw.

"Need some help?" Methos said, interrupting.

"I can do it." Alex shot the words over his shoulder, his frustration turning them hot.

"That-" Methos started, then took a breath. "That wasn't how I meant it."

No . . . Embarrassment crept up Alex's neck. No . . . of course.

He turned to look at his companion and waved him closer. Methos took up position at his side, and Alex plucked a paring knife from the butcher's block for him. He held it out and drew his hand back quickly when Methos brushed against his fingers while taking it. His heart thudded heavy in his chest as the contact spread like wildfire across his skin, and he turned purposefully to the array of ingredients on the counter.

"It-uh-won't be fancy," he said, forcing the words over a dry throat. "But if you could just . . ." He turned to look at the chicken on the cutting board. And the knife Methos held poised over it.

The blade trembled.

Alex's gaze flicked to the old man's face. He stared at nothing. Blank. But his breath quickened, and he suddenly jerked, dropping the knife. His hands shook violently, and Methos turned to the counter at his side. He braced against it, heaving for air, and then slowly collapsed until his forehead touched the surface and his hands lay across the back of his neck. He panted like he'd been running, whole frame lifting, and squeezed in on himself.

After a few harsh breaths, he roared, and Alex jumped at the tearing sound of it-a sob burst forth as anger. Methos lifted his head just enough to bring it back down onto the countertop with an audible thud. He beat his head a few times, and Alex found himself teetering on indecision. The urge, the need to comfort him-anyone-was an alien sensation, but he felt magnetized and cold with fear.

"Adam!" God, stop.

A pause. And then Methos turned slowly, eyes tracing up Alex's outstretched hand until their gazes met. Maybe Alex looked as terrified as he felt, because the old man sighed and let his eyes fall shut. When he opened them again, something hard slipped into place. Bitter and weary.

“I’ve had this body a long time," Methos told him. "I don’t appreciate its mutiny.”

Alex nodded. That he understood. And he didn't think time had much to do with it. His stomach churned at the way Methos stood, staring at him. He looked . . . stripped, his eyes open wounds, and Alex tried to imagine his role here, how he might play this part, so ill-fitting.

He could not fix this with the barrel of a gun. Could not fight or lie his way out of it. He could cut himself on the ragged edges, maybe, and they could bleed together.

Bleeding he knew how to do. And part of him wondered if it was the same, if it felt the same, the invasive surgeries, the being laid bare of it. Not in body, but if it felt the same. Crushing darkness, like spinning and bile. Like choking and shame. And failure.

He took a breath and looked down, trying to shake off the feeling, and retreated a step to give Methos space to breathe. He picked up the knife and gazed down at at the pink chicken flesh ready for slicing.

"I can finish up in here," he said, keeping his voice low.

A silence followed. One whose nature he could not read, and Alex glanced over. Methos's jaw ticked a few times before he nodded in resignation and stalked out of the room. Hollowness filled the space he had occupied-a resounding lack that Alex felt against his skin like a winter draft.

His throat closed.

Failure, at least, was a familiar companion.

 

 

Every attempt to chat over dinner died a premature death, and Alex gave up trying. His frustration boiled, and he could see Methos clenching his silverware, thinking, and then not saying. Like he didn't want to be ungrateful for his rescue but couldn't stand being in the same room either.

Alex paid careful attention to his movements, kept them small and slow and left a wide berth.

He let Methos clear the plates and followed him wordlessly to the bedroom to change. Alex shucked everything as quickly as he could and pulled on a pair of sweatpants. When he reached for the buckle on his prosthetic, he heard the springs of the mattress creak as Methos got up.

"Let me?" he asked and touched the back of Alex's shoulder with warm fingers.

He sounded close, relaxed.

Alex turned to face him, feeling as half naked as he was, and nodded. A look of relief and a small smile passed over Methos's expression as his gaze flicked to the arrangement of straps and buckles that gave Alex some control over the arm's motion.

Deft fingers brushed along his skin, featherlight. He tried to suppress a shiver as he gazed at Methos's face, kissing close and as perfect as he remembered.

The buckles came loose, and Alex let out an unconscious sigh at the release of pressure. He let Methos remove the arm entirely for him and grunted in approval as irritated skin met cool air.

"Thanks," he said, hushed and husky.

Methos glanced back at him from the dresser where he'd set the contraption down and grinned-a small, real thing. It was a conceit for the both of them. Alex could've done it on his own, so it wasn't really a favor. But they could pretend and barter in kindness.

"Any time," Methos responded. And it felt like the first real conversation they'd had in days.

Alex pulled on a long-sleeve shirt that was altered on one side and padded back out to the living room couch. He sat with his back toward the fire so he could read by its glow and settled into the crime novel he'd snagged at the grocery store. Methos lingered in the doorway for a moment watching him before he disappeared inside and cut the light.

 

 

Alex's eyes ached with fatigue as he flipped another page into chapter 10.

And then the moaning started.

Alex snapped his gaze up toward the bedroom, letting the book sag onto his lap as he listened harder. A guttural sound that ended in a whimper. The sound lashed Alex's chest, and he tossed the book aside as he got up and hurried to follow it. By a cut of moonlight, he could see the outline of Methos's body and the lump of the covers he'd kicked away.

He jerked in his sleep, tossing and scowling. A high pitch whine escaped him that cut Alex to the heart and set his blood to panic. He drew closer while Methos twisted himself, contorting away from some remembered pain, and stretched out a cautious hand.

"Adam . . ."

Methos shuddered and keened, squeezing his eyes shut harder.

"Adam," Alex tried again, louder, and then touched his shoulder.

He responded like a gunshot, like a mousetrap sprung. In the darkened bedroom, Methos exploded out of the bed with a roar. He tackled Alex with his full weight, sending them both hard onto the wooden floor. Between blinks Alex found himself pinned, with heaving fury bearing its fingers down on his throat.

He gagged, red and black bursting across his vision, and gripped Methos's wrist to wrench free. He struggled, twisted, bucked trying to throw him off. But Methos was strong and agile. Determined.

Alex tried to draw a breath and failed. The fingers on his throat closed more, intent to kill. Primal panic hit him, and he beat against the arms holding him down. Once. Twice. Squirmed enough to pull a partial breath.

"Adam!" Terror in the word as he shoved and clawed and tried to roll them for any small advantage.

The other man's sweaty fingers slipped, and Alex sucked in air. He caught one wrist, fighting to hold him off, but he would be outmatched and could feel his hold slipping. "Methos, stop!" The words came out brokenly, crushed by the fingers still on his windpipe.

But everything,

suddenly,

stilled. Except for Alex's desperate gasping and the grip he had on his assailant's arm.

The body above him, a dark mass hidden in shadows, lifted with heavy breathing. He let go. And as he lay sprawled and shaking, those lovely, killing hands moved slowly to cup his face. Their weight and warmth just so. A second later, he felt the moisture of close breath across his face as Methos folded over him and touched their foreheads together.

"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry." He hugged his knees around Alex's thighs and repeated the words, softly shaking.

Alex gasped and gasped, nausea churning in his stomach. A spike pounded through his temple. He let the fear drain out into the floorboards, and it left him trembling. His arm weighed twice what it should as he brought it up slowly and threaded his fingers in Methos's damp hair.

"You were having a nightmare," he rasped.

Methos nodded against him, having fallen silent. They stayed that way, hearts fluttering in the darkness and shushing each other with small gestures-until Methos unfolded and drew away with lingering fingertips. He stood up into the light from the window, and Alex watched the shapes slide across the unblemished planes of his body as he hid he face in his hands for a moment and then sank onto the edge of the bed. He looked down at his arms, examining them.

Sweating and sick from the shock, Alex grunted as he got up and rubbed at his aching throat. He tried swallowing and grimaced at the sharp pain. The bruising was starting. He glanced down and saw what Methos was staring at: red scores across his forearm. From fingernails.

"It's not y-"

"I know. But it is." Methos peered up at him, half his face in shadow. Alex couldn't read his expression, just the wide haunted hollows in his eyes. Methos dropped his gaze and then moved back onto the bed, clearing a space. And the way he curled there, small and unsure, glowing silver like a beacon, sent a shiver up Alex's spine. He could anticipate what would come next and started to map out his answer.

Methos traced a shape on the sheets, watching the motion of his own hand as he built up the courage. Finally, "Stay?" he asked and met Alex's eyes.

Pain throbbed in Alex's throat, and he swallowed with a wince. And had it only been that, he might have. Chalked it up as some rough foreplay, though it had been nothing of the kind. He could take a beating. It was a talent. But it wasn't that: indignation or even anger.

He didn't want an apology. Didn't need it or gratitude. And yet Methos's ledger had just gone even more red, so of course he would offer.

He glanced away and shut his eyes so he could get the words out. "I don't think that's a good idea."

When he opened them again, Methos's head hung low, and he offered no argument.

Alex leaned onto the bed with one knee and reached until he could run his fingers along the old man's hairline. He dipped in close to place a chaste kiss, a promise, and then retreated to the empty warmth of the fire.

 

 

"He's your 'Well-Manicured Man'?" Methos asked from his safe distance across the small kitchen. He watched Alex nod, pouring a cup of coffee. "Such a strange name for-will you just let me look at it?" His tone switched abruptly when he could not take his eyes off the turtleneck collar Alex had chosen.

Alex locked a gaze on him of emerald shards, more wary than outright hostile. Then he adopted a posture of acquiescence sublime in its simplicity. He barely seemed to move, and yet . . . his trust manifested.

Methos felt his stomach tighten as he closed the gap and moved the mask of the fabric aside. Alex stood perfectly still, breathing shallowly, as Methos mapped the deep red bruising he found into the shapes of his hands. Purple blossomed with the red, a spilled ink. He swallowed, loud enough to hear, as he inspected the full extent of it.

"I'm fine," Alex's words came out whispered and hoarse.

The guilty knot in Methos's gut pulsed hotly. "You don't sound fine," he replied, and set the shirt back to covering the bruise. "You sound like you have a bruised larynx."

Alex quirked an eyebrow at him and seemed to animate again now that the examination was done. "Probably cause I do."

Methos flinched and drew back. "You should be angry."

A shrug.

Of course he thought it didn't matter. He'd learned it didn't. Outrage flooded Methos's veins. "No! Don't . . . don't do that." A mistake, it was a mistake, but apologies could only go so far-just words after all. Alex had come for him. Dropped his whole life and flown to his rescue on nothing more than a plea and the memory of good times. And it must surely put him at risk to be here, hiding out from his employers, pretending that he had not stolen their prize. Few people left in the world blessed Methos with such loyalty.

He had started to wonder if that's all it was, anymore. Just loyalty.

He laid his fingers on Alex's cheek to get his attention and swayed closer, eyeing the bow of his mouth. Lips parted.

And then his eyes fluttered, like the dispelling of a dream. Alex disappeared from under his touch with a twist, set his coffee aside, and looked into the fridge with interest.

Methos's heart still raced as he stood abandoned.

Just like that. Every time.

Cold dread poured over his skull and down his spine. Maybe . . . the way they'd left things had changed them-utterly. Irrevocably.

Alex turned to look at him, an expectant expression on his face, and Methos realized that he must have missed a question somewhere.

"I-sorry?"

The younger man's mouth quirked into a puzzled smile, and the force of want that burst through Methos's body rocked him back on his heels. He took a breath, heedless of whatever Alex was repeating, as the realization settled in. As the awkwardness of the last few days made a sudden sense.

What old fools these immortals be.

Sometimes he could surprise even himself.

Alex said something. A name, maybe, for someone who wasn't real.

Methos drifted past him out of the too-small space, and let his feet lead.

 

 

 

The bedroom door clicked shut.

Alex heard it as he stood in the silence of the kitchen. A small, common sound. It made him frown, and he stepped out into the living room to stare at it. The door. Closed.

Black needles of fear pierced him everywhere, like a sudden rash. If a man could reach his limit of shame, Alex felt surely he must be close; he only ever made deposits into that account. He moved closer to the barrier and listened, holding his breath. He could hear the rush of his own blood, and nothing.

Wrong. All wrong. Though how, or when, or where...

He touched his forehead against the wood for a moment, collecting a breath and steadying his nerves. Something ruined lay beyond this door; something made worse by his trying. But he could give him an apology, at least. That he could do.

There were no locks on the interior doors, so Alex turned the knob slowly and then slipped inside, an intruder in his own home.

He forgot to breathe.

Methos sat on the edge of the bed, his intertwined fingers dangling between his knees as he stared calmly at the floor. Alex watched, unsure and silent, and inhaled as Methos turned to look at him. He was older, somehow. In the eyes. In the drawn lines of his face. He looked . . . weary.

"It's all right," he said at length, "if you don't want me anymore . . ."

"What?" Alex's heart skipped, and the word tumbled out of him, startled and shaking.

Methos shook his head at himself. "I'm sorry it took me so long to realize-"

"Wait, what?" Alex said again, barely more articulate. His jaw hung open as he tried to form more words.

Methos's gaze sharpened, and he turned to face him a little more. "You pull away," he said.

"But that's not . . ." Alex shook his head, shook himself and took a step closer. His chest ached, suddenly bound in barb wire while the oxygen fled the room. That's what he thought? Rejection? "It's-it's not . . ."

The world-weary resignation on Methos's face vanished as his eyebrows shot up with renewed interest, maybe hope and annoyance too. "Not . . . what?" At Alex's distressed silence, he added. "Help me out here."

Everything narrowed to the sensation of breathing, the feel of the heat in the room, and the walls he had built, and expectant, lovely eyes waiting for an answer.

"When . . ." His mouth went dry and innards wrenched. He tried again. "After they were done with-"

The words cut off in his throat, and he had to shut his eyes and look away as the shame burned up his skin. He could feel his face turning red and wanted to laugh at it, at his own weakness. They were just words. Anyone could speak words. Even ones they'd never said before.

Alex licked at his lower lip as he gathered the words he needed and marshaled them forward. "They used to gang rape me, him and his friends," he told the the floor, in a hoarse, rushed voice. "Or beat me cause they liked the way I screamed." He looked up and met Methos's eyes, fighting tremors. "Afterwards, I didn't want to be touched. For days. Not for anything. Not even bandages."

He could barely breathe. No one was ever supposed to find out. Our secret, he'd said. Alex had broken the secret and surely, surely he would now pay.

After a moment, Methos's eyes fell shut, and he nodded a little.

But Alex wasn't done. That part had been truth, but he could feel the rest of it weighing on the back of his tongue.

"And you said this wasn't transactional."

It sounded like a plea.

And Methos answered it by opening his eyes and slowly rising. He slid into his space and looked over Alex's face like he had trouble finding the flaws.

"Why did you save me?" he asked.

And even though his tone had been calm, curious, Alex jerked back and frowned in confusion. Instinct told him this was a trap, and he felt his heart start to pound.

"Because you asked me to."

Methos shrugged. "So? You could've ignored it."

"You were hurt."

"So?" Methos pressed close, got in his face. "Why? Why risk it?"

"I-"

"Did you think you'd get a blowjob?"

"What?" The words stung like a slap.

"Maybe a good fuck?"

"No!"

"Then why!"

"Because I care!" Alex shouted in his face, then turned aside and panted, "Sukin syn," under his breath. 

Methos relented and smirked at him, which should have been more infuriating than it was. Alex blinked slowly as Methos drew the backs of his fingers along his cheek in a gentle, calming caress.

"That's what I wanted you to understand in Paris. Why I was helping you."

Alex leaned into the touch as he let that sink in.

"I understand now why you're being so careful," Methos told him. "But . . . you don't have to be. It's not the same for me."

It happened suddenly, the understanding, the release. Like the bindings come off, and there was air again. Methos was looking at him with that earnest compassion, sliding a hand up his chest and neck, and Alex knew it for exactly what it was. He surged forward to kiss him, devour him.

He wanted lips and tongue. Scouring heat. Everything he'd tried not to want suddenly burning through his core. He sucked those perfect lips, scoring them, and then stopped, his hand still heavy on his partner's nape, to check. Alex panted and licked at his lower lip, holding a question in the quirk of his eyebrow. Methos returned the gaze, lust-dark, and spread his hands under Alex's shirt, molding them to hard muscle.

"Still want me, then?" he asked, not really asking.

Alex leaned in to answer. Stopped when he felt his shirt sliding up his sides. Their gazes locked as he stood motionless and let himself be undressed. It sparked through his blood, these moments, when he could not tell if he was master or servant. Or if those words applied to the games at hand.

Methos pulled the shirt up over his head and then down the hardware of the arm with ease, then started on the buckles. He asked by touch and expression, and Alex acquiesced to him every time.

He groaned at the easing of pressure and grasped at Methos's fingers when he moved away to set everything down. So he wouldn't lose contact, wouldn't let him get away.

With a quick pull, Alex reeled him back in and curled into the curve of his neck. Kissing, tasting.

"Your turn," he muttered, coffee and velvet, right into his ear.

Methos shuddered, and Alex's pulse jumped at the response. In the second it took his partner to drop his shirt to the floor, Alex's skin caught fire. He wanted to touch. Be touched. He pressed in and backed them to the bed. Gave Methos a second to sit before he crawled over him, leaving a trail of kiss burns, licking his abs. He pinned one bicep with his hand, and Methos groaned as his tongue flicked closer, arched as he caught a nipple.

His gasps rippled down Alex's spine and settled heavy in his groin. Each one delicious. An ache.

Methos pulled him down for a kiss. More than a kiss. A dizzying want, a moan into his mouth. He rolled them and sat up, stripping Alex the rest of the way like unwrapping a gift and only doing himself as an afterthought. He hovered for a moment, and Alex felt his gaze like a point of heat, tracing up his leg, lingering on the half-hard cock that jumped at the attention. Desire curled and twisted. Do something. The anticipation, god.

Alex arched a little on the blades of waiting.

The ache sharpened.

And still he watched . . . being watched. Avoided touching and burned instead.

Methos dipped. Licked the sweat forming above his knee.

Alex remembered to breathe.

He shook as that mouth moved up his thigh. As hair brushed against him, needle-fine pain-pleasure, withholding satisfaction. He panted panted as hands kneaded his muscles. He jumped at the scrape of a palm over one nipple. Light teeth on the other. Air hissed from his lungs.

And then Methos's breath. Hot on his neck, washing so close to vulnerable bruises. One hand still skilled and clever on his chest sending jolts through sensitive flesh.

Methos dropped close, touching their heads together.

"Can I?" he asked, then kissed Alex's shoulder. He flexed, rutting against Alex's side. Nipped hungrily at his jaw.

Can I fuck you.

It struck nerves. Fear and excitement. He turned, searching for a kiss, for connection. Methos's hand stopped its exquisite torture as Alex pulled him, slowed him down, delved with his tongue, and sucked until it stung. Methos grunted at the loss when they parted, and Alex took a breath. Two.

"Okay," he said, and lay back.

Methos smiled a little and glanced at the left nightstand with a questioning look. Alex nodded. And in the few moments it took for his partner to find the lube in the bottom drawer, he felt his anxiety start to gather.

Fire coursed up and down his skin, a begging heat. He wanted to be touched everywhere. Stroke himself. Relieve the ache. But he waited, breathing hard, watching Methos slick up two fingers. Black eyes gazed back at him with intent, lust. He threw his arm across his eyes and tried not to see that look on other men's faces.

Feel. Gasp.

Just feel.

A gentle hand under his knee, lifting it up. Exposing him.

The knot in his belly tightened, and he sucked deep breath. Let it out slowly.

"Alex?"

He shivered, concentrating on unwinding the tension, and opened his legs a little wider.

Black and red swirled in the unseen. He jerked in surprise at the first touch, long fingers wrapping around his cock. Sliding. Pulling. Oh, silk fire, he swallowed a moan and let his body rock into it, pleasure and throbbing. Then one of those slicked fingers, circling, circling.

He tried to frown and gasp. He went rigid at the pressure of being entered. A sudden heat, a new form of ache. He couldn't breathe for a moment, and sweat dripped down the sides of his face.

"You're so tight," Methos said, sounding concerned. He spread his free hand on Alex's stomach and rubbed in slow circles.

Alex tried. He tried to adjust to the intrusion.

Methos stopped with the circles after a moment and lifted Alex's shielding arm away. He stretched out beside him, kissed his jaw, and then nuzzled in close to his ear.

"Alex . . ." No one said his name with such reverence. He spoke it like the shape gave him pleasure.

It suffused him with the warmth of affection and prickled across Alex's skin.

"Relax," Methos told him, and kissed his way to his lips. "You have to relax."

He knew. And he was trying, and that was the problem.

Methos drew back. "Look at me."

And reluctantly Alex opened his eyes. His partner looked very serious, which was not exactly the goal.

"I'm not going to hurt you," Methos whispered-a simple, potent spell Alex could feel taking effect. Methos's lips twitched. "Not after that daring rescue."

Alex grinned back a little. "Wasn't that daring."

"Shhhhh . . ." Methos shook his head. "Let me have my illusions."

Alex huffed and closed his eyes. "Say it again," he muttered.

"Which?" A nose brushed along his cheek.

"My name."

He felt a smile against his jaw.

"Alex . . ." Methos purred.

And it bolstered his desire. Alex turned in search of a kiss—not denied—and felt his resistance dissolve at the contact.

Methos tested. Slowly. The in out slide.

He rubbed sensitive flesh.

Matched breaths.

Alex arched and pressed against him.

He wondered, as the second finger joined in, twisting, filling, if Methos knew. That he did not trust people with this. How rare it was to trust anyone. But especially this.

Methos scissored his fingers, and Alex exhaled the ghost of a moan. Expert hands crafted his pleasure, reaming him, undoing. Fingers dragged across nerves and Alex bucked; he grabbed his lover's arm to stop him. Too much, too much . . . And Methos merely grinned, looking rakish and as flushed as Alex felt.

He burned. Sheened in sweat. Liquid with desire. Alex rolled onto his stomach and pressed up onto his knees, all his weight balanced on just one arm. He needed more than fingers. Wanted to feel full before those black sparks hit.

Teeth pinched gently on the flesh of his ass in approval and the room caught fire. Methos grabbed his flesh in both hands, squeezed, kneaded. Pushed his palms up Alex's spine. Pulled back. Repeated the motion and lay across Alex's back so his lips came right to his ear, dick pressed wet and hot between them.

"I don't want to take it slow," he whispered.

A thrill spread over Alex's skin. He swallowed, nodded, and gripped his fist in the sheets.

A hand rubbed small circles into his lower back, slipping easily on the gathered sweat. It was boiling. Inside. Outside. Relaxing tension, melting away. Methos muttered something—it wasn't English—gripped Alex hard by the hip, and entered him with slow, relentless pressure.

It burned, but that was perfect. Alex squeezed his eyes shut and leaned into it, breathing through. He was out of practice, but the body remembers. And this he wanted.

Methos groaned, cursing, and braced against Alex's shoulder on his good side.

He felt full. Brimming. Sparking everywhere. He panted. His skin hurt.

Methos drew back. Stroked in. A few tests to get the feel of it, igniting sensitive skin. And then made true on his promise.

Inside, Alex went molten. Each stroke rocked them forward, splitting pain. Ah. Pleasure. So hard. He shook with need, and the coiling. Strained to hold both their weight on the one arm. But he couldn't—

—take that much. No chance to breathe—

He wheezed, soundless, arm screaming for relief. Pleasure-pain sloshed up his back with dizzy blackness.

Slap. Slap. Slap.

Steady-fast.

He shuddered. Methos's hand on his back slipped in the sweat, and they slammed together full weight.

Alex's arm buckled, and he felt the cock in his ass up to his throat. So full it brought tears to his eyes.

He cried out at the impact, his face suddenly buried in a pillow.

Methos's lips touched his ear. "Oh, yes . . . more of those," he growled and licked a line around the shell.

Alex turned so he could breathe, felt his partner heaving against his back, wet skin sliding.

Oh . . .

He'd moaned.

He'd spent so long learning to be silent, he wasn't sure if he knew how. If he could manage anything other than an imitation of pornography.

Methos pressed down on his shoulder blades, pinning him. He thrust in slower this time, snapping at the end. The force made Alex writhe and buck into the bed, riding the motion. He found friction, relief for the pulsing between his legs, and strained to let himself make sound. It came out in whimpers. Small moans as Methos ground him down to frayed edges. Live wires.

Every direction fire and pleasure. The tide rising, hotter and tighter.

He could not last under an assault like this. Fucked into the mattress. Breathless.

He wasn't- Moan. Supposed to.

Too quick. Breath. Too quick.

At the last second he remembered to loosen his throat, and came with a hoarse cry and a sharp clench of limbs, smearing cum into the sheets beneath him. Methos never paused, and the sensation went from full to overwhelming—every nerve too exposed. Alex needed him to stop, to just—just for a moment—

And then the rhythm went erratic. Methos tumbled after him, loud and shameless. Alex could feel his body pulsing in him, around him, and yet, something was missing—a spreading kind of warmth.

With an exhausted sigh, Methos extracted himself and dropped onto the bed. Alex felt naked without his weight and twisted to look at his own ass, frowning a little. He reached back to do a quick examination, and his fingers only glistened with clear lube. He glanced at his partner.

"Did you—did you just . . . without . . ."

A smug smile crept onto the old man's face as he brushed his fingers through damp hair. "Well . . . pick up a thing or two every millennia." He shrugged languidly, looking wanton and edible, and shut his eyes.

Alex stared at him. "Could you teach me?"

Methos peeked out of one eye at him, then shifted onto his side so he could look at him properly and gave the question more consideration than it might have deserved.

"I don't know," he replied honestly, and let his gaze trace down Alex's bare skin. His innocent expression morphed to wicked glee. "But I would enjoy trying."

 

 

 

They dozed naked through the morning hours, sometimes touching, often not. Methos woke first, drawing consciousness up through the molasses of sated limbs and heavy bliss. He opened his eyes and could see Alex in profile without having to move, or think of moving. He could feel the thud of his heart, ticking up just a bit.

He let his eyes wander over this boy—man (they were all so young)—who had tried so hard to please him.

And he did not know why.

He watched Alex's chest rise and fall gently and tried to sort through the emotions bubbling through his veins. A chaos by comparison.

How was he feeling? Cautious? Foolhardy? His gaze traced Alex's profile and cute, pert nose.

Some people can sense when they're being watched. Methos found himself doubting Alex would've lived even this long if he hadn't been one of them. In less than a minute, his eyes popped open, and he glanced over to find Methos still watching him, still curled on his side with a pillow tucked under his head. Alex blinked at him slowly.

"What?" he asked, bruised voice rough and breathy.

Methos moved then. He propped himself up on his elbow so he could get a better look and smiled self-consciously, struck with a sudden shyness as his face heated. Bulbs of energy burst in his chest. And he took his time looking. Too plush lips. Sculpted chest. Strong thighs. Even calves that—

"Methos." A gentle reminder.

"I think I'm a little in love with you," he admitted, and dared to look Alex in the eyes.

Alex stared back at him.

And he did not smile.

A small panic stabbed Methos in the guts, and he looked away, down at the bed. "You don't . . . have to say it back. I just . . ." He braved the embarrassment and lifted his gaze. "If I don't see you again, I wanted to—"

"It sounds different when you say it." Alex cut him off. The words fell from his lips like stones, and he stared up at the ceiling, concentrating on nothing.

Methos narrowed his eyes while his heart jogged. "Different from what?"

A long moment stretched when it seemed like Alex wasn't going to answer. But then, in that same distant voice. "When he said it."

Methos's eyes fell shut at a sudden swell of sorrow. He contemplated his next move, and then crawled on top of Alex slowly, allowing him ample time for any number of reactions. He laid still and watched with passing interest as Methos settled his weight and braced his arms so the only thing Alex could see was his face, hovering over him.

"Language is a tricky thing. You can use all the same words, and it means something completely different." Alex's gaze regained some of its focus, jade eyes glittering as Methos spoke. "When he said it, what he meant was, 'I own you.'" He paused, then halved the distance between them, letting his breath wash over one cheek, then lips, the merest suggestion of a kiss. With one hand, he brushed the backs of his fingers against Alex's jaw and held him with nothing more than a steady gaze. "And when I say it, what I mean is, 'You own me.'"

Alex's eyes flashed, and he swallowed. He drew a breath to speak, but Methos laid a finger across his lips.

The old man's mouth quirked at the corners in a smile that shone mostly in his eyes.

"I just wanted you to know," he said, and withdrew to his side of the bed.

 

 

 

Alex settled into a silence that Methos could not read. Not uncomfortable, but . . . insular.

Methos touched his hand, curious and not above probing to elicit a response. His fingers moved, though made no aim to entwine, and Alex turned to look at him. Questions and apprehension grew heavy and full in his expression. So pregnant a silence. And so taunting a mystery.

With the light tip of a finger, Methos drew sigils onto the delicate skin on the back of his hand. An old alphabet no one knew, but it drew his lover's gaze as he intended.

"You can say whatever it is," he offered. "Or read me a phonebook."

Alex smiled a little at that and huffed a laugh. A snowflake on a summer's day, but it was there. He drew his hand away and held it up, staring at it and slowly frowning. He let it fall and curl protectively against his breastbone.

Archaeology is a practice of patience.

Methos got comfortable. Stretched and propped his head on his hand.

"You've never asked me," Alex said eventually, whispering to the ceiling.

"About what?" He felt his mouth go dry and watched, hawkish for every gesture, every minor expression.

Alex blinked slowly and did not look at him. "About my arm . . ."

Oh . . .

Methos swallowed and took a steady breath. This way to the mine field. "What happened to your arm?" he asked, slow and serious.

He had wondered. But their rule had been no questions.

Alex drew in a breath that shuddered on the exhale. "Remember how I told you we were working on a vaccine? Well. We weren't the only ones. We were in a Russian mining camp looking for intel on their version of the vaccine. The . . . prisoners . . . were being used as test subjects." He shook his head lightly, eyes locked on the ceiling above. "We weren't supposed to be there. I convinced them I could share intel from the US program if they let me go. But Mulder he—" He pressed his lips into a bitter line and just shook his head.

"I escaped. Into the woods. Just"—he shrugged—"running. And there were these men. This group of men . . ." Alex's face, beautiful in repose, twisted with pain.

Methos could see him remembering, his eyes darting to follow the movements of phantoms.

Emotions flooded in, and Alex struggled to breath and find his voice.

"They were all missing their left arms," he said, pronouncing the words carefully as the saliva in his mouth grew thicker. He smiled, humorlessly. "The tests . . . They track the subjects through a marker implanted during small pox vaccinations. Which are always—"

"On the left arm," Methos breathed, cold horror congealing in his gut.

Alex nodded at the ceiling. "Without the marker, you were useless as a test subject. It—it was the only way they knew to escape the oil."

He sucked in another breath, gasping. His lips trembled as he fought the onrush of tears and memory. "They, um. Grabbed me. In the middle of the night. And—" Pant. Pant. He could not stop the quaking. Or the tears as he squeezed his eyes shut. "Held me down. Cut it off with a hot hunting knife."

He shook like he would come apart, face red from the strain.

Methos had no words. Only the agony of his heart flaking away with each beat. He slid up to Alex's side and ever so gently pressed a kiss to the delicate part of his shoulder. He wound their legs together so he could hug him somehow without making him feel trapped.

He placed another kiss.

"I'm sorry."

Alex shuddered.

"I'm so sorry."

It explained the ugliness of the wound, the ill-care no surgeon would have shown.

Another breath or two and Alex had himself under control again. He turned, locking gazes for just a moment, and then scrubbed his hand over his face, wiping away the tear tracks.

"I've never told anyone," he said after a sigh.

Methos frowned and squeezed a little tighter. "Why?" The word a whisper.

Alex lifted one shoulder in a shrug.

"Never had anyone to tell," he added quickly, with what sounded like embarrassment.

Methos drew closer and bumped their heads together lightly so his lips were just above Alex's ear.

"Thank you," he said, because there was not much else one could say.

 

 

 

Alex allowed himself to be pulled into an embrace on his good side, even though it pinned his arm. He relaxed his head against Methos's chest, and they lay breathing, Methos threading his fingers over and over through his lover's hair. He imagined each stroke washing away a little something that ached.

He did not count the seconds, or the minutes. But eventually, Alex got his fill of tenderness, and he pulled away, drowsy-drunk, into his own space.

Pants might be a good idea, Methos noted idly. And something to drink. He rolled out of the bed with a groan and scanned the floor. Nothing.

A heap of clothing lay at the foot of the bed, so he tried that as well, tossing aside the pieces that weren't his.

"What are you doing?" Alex asked, his voice croaking with soreness.

Methos dropped to his knees. "What does it look like?" And peered under the bed.

"We're the only ones here."

He popped his head back up over the edge of the mattress and angled so he could see past Alex's foot. "And I am a gentleman." His tone light and innocent. His lips quirked. "At least for the nineteenth century."

He ducked back down and reached under the bed, crowing when he came back with a pair of green and blue-checked boxers. He stood and then pulled them on slowly, running his fingers back and forth under the elastic like each half inch was a delicate production.

Alex snorted and chuckled at him. And it became easier to remember dancing under a string of lights on Montmartre to a busker's jaunty violin. Methos let the elastic snap against his stomach loudly when he was done, then turned smiling toward the door.

He returned with bottles of water and a handful of cookies to find that Alex had moved to the left side of the bed, with a nightstand in easy reach. He had not, however, bothered with clothes, which Methos found he had difficulty classifying as a problem. He passed over an open bottle of water and bit into one of the cookies—chocolate chip.

It crunched and crumbled into cookie bits on the bed.

He could feel Alex judging him and looked over in indignation. "Who buys crunchy cookies? What is the point of that?"

Alex's eyebrows shot higher, but he said nothing.

Methos scowled and got up to wipe all the crumbs off the sheets. "It's your fault," he muttered, and plopped back down.

"Are you done?" Alex asked him, not very well hiding his humor.

Methos leaned back against the headboard for a moment, reveling in feeling petulant. He let it sit for a moment, then looked down at Alex with a deadpan expression. "Chewy. Seriously."

Alex broke and laughed. "Sorry. I'll get some when I go back to town."

The outside world. An even stranger place, apparently, then he had thought it was. With new enemies.

Methos sighed and picked up a bottle of water only to set it down again without drinking. "You have to call them again."

Alex nodded and closed his eyes. Methos touched his hair, playing with it.

"What would you do if you could . . . have a different life?"

Alex cracked an eye open and looked at him. "Doesn't matter," he said. "The Syndicate doesn't just let you walk away."

Methos flopped down next to him and propped his head on one hand. "Indulge me."

Alex sighed, shaking his head, and Methos nudged him gently in the ribs.

"A book store," he said eventually, the confession breathy from the injury Methos had given him. "Something quiet. Used and things in Cyrillic."

Methos grinned at him. "Well . . . I do have a lot of books."

The look Alex cut him was hard, bitter, and brief. "I told you, they don't let people go. They have agents everywhere, they control everything. And besides . . ." He cut himself off and frowned over the words still fluttering on his tongue.

"Besides?" Methos prompted.

Alex gave him a long look. "Someone has to do it."

He lifted his eyebrows at that, and Alex went on.

"There is no one else. No one who can see all the pieces. Who can stop it. It has to be me."

He spoke with conviction. About saving the world. Methos gazed back at him, taken anew with everything there was about his strange and silent assassin.

"Six billion lives all on your shoulders," he said. "That's a lot of weight."

Alex huffed and quirked an eyebrow in agreement.

Methos shrugged and tipped his head. "I could help."

"What?" Alex stared at him and sat up a little in alarm.

"What?" Methos moved with him. "I could help! You've been telling me there's an alien invasion coming bent on destroying all human life. And miraculously, I believe you. So either it's true, and some uninvited guests want to take over my planet—"

"Your planet."

Methos shot him a look. "I was here first! Finders keepers."

"And . . . if I'm making it all up?"

Methos gave him a steady look. "Then you're convincingly crazy. Which I'll find out eventually, and this will be an interesting chapter in my chronicle. Either way, should be exciting."

Alex blinked at him.

"Plus, you know"—Methos gestured airily—"the inability to die might come in handy."

Jade eyes narrowed. "Did—did you just offer to be my henchman?"

"I didn't say—"

"You already have the coat."

"I didn't say henchman!" Methos sat up and scowled at him.

Alex grinned blithely. "I dig the coat."

"I'm serious." And it was as much a surprise to Methos as anyone to find that it was true.

Alex sobered and pressed himself up so he could lean back against the headboard, too. Eventually, he glanced over.

"It's dangerous."

That earned a small smile. "My life is always dangerous. But it's not always meaningful. I can help. And you know it."

Alex sighed. Nodded. Methos leaned until their shoulders touched, even though it was on the bad side. He didn't mind, and he wanted Alex to know it.

"First things first," he said lowly, pacing out his words. "The man." He met Alex's eyes. "Is he dead?"

Alex's nod was very slight.

"Good." The word sounded black and sharp. "And the others?"

"You don't have t—"

"The others."

"Methos."

Methos inclined his head and turned slowly until their gazes locked. His stomach burned with a cold, blue fire, and he could feel a deadly want unfolding within. Alex saw it too.

"I don't need saving," he said.

"It's not saving." But that wasn't quite true. The darker parts of his nature could not abide his things broken. The angels could not witness his heart bloodied.

Alex leaned in and took his cheek in his palm.

"I don't have the luxury of vengeance. I need them alive. And, yes, I could use your help."

The words took their time filtering through, until the baser part of him could hear it. His eyes fluttered shut as the spell of the anger broke, and he nuzzled in, nose to nose.

"Then you shall have it." A promise sealed with a kiss.

 

***

 

On a cold February night at 8:47pm an email went out to the remaining Elders and officiates of the Syndicate. It contained a time, an address, and a codeword, to ensure authenticity. Their plans, after many years, had come to fruition. They were to meet their alien conspirators, hand over the first successful hybrid, and let the colonization begin.

They arrived on time.

And two hours earlier than a similar invitation sent to their masters had indicated.

The door behind them locked. And the blinding lights ahead obscured the truth from their eyes.

They died screaming. In a conflagration of expensive suits and selfish ambition.

So went their wives.

So went their children.

A corruption of slavers consumed to a pile of ash, but for a byte altered on a server, in a basement across the street.

 

***

 

2 YEARS LATER

 

Breathless, he pounded down another level in the Hoover building's parking garage, feet slapping on the pavement as he ran full bore. Panic made every movement lighter, quicker. And as he wove his way through the labyrinth, he could see figures standing among parked cars.

They were off plan.

Alex hadn't followed the plan.

Methos flung himself behind the closest concrete pillar and scuttled between hiding places, fighting to silence his panting breaths as he drew within earshot of a rumbling baritone. He pressed himself flat against a round column and strained over the sound of his own heart to listen.

A gunshot splintered the air.

Methos flinched from the bark. The surfaces distorted sound, but he could hear someone whimpering in pain. Heart in his throat, he edged carefully around for a better look.

He could see Alex on his knees.

Another shot.

The sound punched in his gut, and Alex crumpled on himself with a cry.

The bald one, Skinner, trained his gun on him, arm steady. Alex gestured, and Skinner glanced briefly to the side. His expression never wavered from unsympathetic determination.

Time warped, spinning out slow and jagged. It was the span of a breath.

Methos watched him take the shot.

He watched Alex's head snap back from the force.

He watched his body fall in a heap.

The shock formed a vacuum in his chest, cutting off any sound. His body heaved in rejection.

Alex. His Alex.

He could hardly—

He couldn't—

He had been scooped hollow with scraped sides and stumbled back into hiding. His knees evaporated, body dissolved to an undulating pulse of horror and cold.

His lungs screamed, forcing him to breathe over razor blades and broken windows.

Time. Time did not stop. And the FBI men were still talking, even though he could not imagine why that was important. Who was to care what FBI men had to say? Trembling from the shock, he peered around the pillar again, cool brittle concrete flaking on his face.

The young one, Mulder, packed himself into his car and slammed the door. He peeled away, Methos ducking out of his view on instinct. Skinner stood over Alex's body for a moment, hefting his gun, waiting, perhaps, for a reason to fire it again. None came. His lip curled, and then he marched for the elevators, pistol still in hand.

For a moment, the parking complex cupped utter silence in its palms. And Methos stepped out of his hiding place.

They'd left Alex where he fell. Discarded trash on a dirt-caked floor.

No calls for assistance. No ambulance.

Just silence.

Fury opened black and fiery wings behind Methos's ribs. As he crossed the empty expanse, he breathed brimstone and ancient curses the world had not heard in an age. His hands went for the blades he once carried, swift and silent killers if one wished.

But he did not wish.

He wanted blood and agonized flesh, screams for mercy and death.

Bloodlust carried him heedless across the garage until he was at Alex's side panting with rage.

He could do it.

So easily. What was one Assistant Director to Death himself.

And, oh, the animal in him wanted to. And his muscles remembered a time when his might was the only law.

But he did not have time now for indulgences. He gave the closed doors a hard, longing glare, and then turned his attention to more important things. The desire for vengeance burned out of him as he knelt next to his lover's body and brushed his open, shocked eyes closed with unsteady fingers. He felt warm, still—so close to this side of alive. Methos sighed to his bones, and the ache of grief found home in his sternum.

Blood pooled under Alex's head and a single drop ran down his face as Methos lifted him into his arms. Bodies are surprisingly unwieldy to move. And the gunshot made things messy. He had to angle him in close to keep the brain matter and skull from going further to pieces. Only entry wounds were neat, small holes.

Methos hurried to the car they had left a level above, gentle and easy in his motions, as though jostling Alex might wake him. Blood soaked into the black fabric of his coat and smeared across the side of the car as he set Alex down against it just long enough to pop the trunk. A moment later, he could feel more of it drying on his face as he gazed down into the cramped space and silently apologized.

A car had never seemed so silent or so echoingly large as he drove, at precisely the speed limit, to the apartment Alex kept in DC.

 

***

 

Consciousness hit in a wall of sound. A heavy, splitting sensation, like an axe through his skull. Needles pierced through his ears. Alex lurched upright, screwing his eyes shut from the pain, and let out a feral wail.

His skin throbbed, and angry bees punctured the backs of his eyes. He clutched at his forehead, and each exhale came out a whimper.

"You get used to it," someone said. A cherished voice he angled toward instinctively that pushed back at the terror binding his body in knots. "The first time is the worst," Methos went on, cool, liquid balm in every syllable. "You're supposed to be scared."

Unsure, Alex lowered his hand slowly, frame shaking, and eased the pressure on his eyes. His head hurt, and he feared that even a sliver of light would make the migraine worse.

"What?" he managed to say, a confusion of images flashing through his mind's eye.

"The buzz," Methos replied easily. "It gets easier."

Alex's breathing stopped, pinned in place by the words. And he slowly cracked one eye open, then the other.

Methos sat in his reading chair by the window, studying him with wide, dark eyes.

Alex frowned. He knew the term it—

He shook his head, and the pain and strangling sound faded away. His stomach fluttered.

"No . . ."

"Alex."

He jerked and looked suddenly down at his arm and hand, where he'd been shot. Nothing . . . not a blemish.

The panic slapped him like cold water and he touched his forehead, ran his fingers around and expected them to come back bloody. A wheezing sound escaped him when he turned to look at the bed and saw the pillows had been stacked with towel that were deep red with blood.

"Alex," Methos said more forcefully, and got up.

But he couldn't stop staring at the blood. His blood.

Every breath too shallow.

This wasn't—

It couldn't—

"Myshka, look at me," Methos said, tone tender but imploring.

Alex tore his eyes away long enough to look up and track Methos's gaze as he knelt by the side of the bed.

"You're one of us now," he told him.

As simple and life altering a declaration as "I might be in love with you."

Alex had no words. Only too little space in his chest, and a top spinning spinning behind his eyes. He'd learned so much about them in the last few years—a secret X-Files, if there could be such a thing.

He peered into his partner's eyes—a trusted lover's eyes.

"Did you know?"

It was the cruelest of questions, for the both of them.

Methos drew a slow breath and let it out with a nod. He had the courage to not look away.

Alex felt his face crumple despite himself, and he pulled back at the lash of betrayal.

"Please try to understand—"

He looked away.

"We don't interfere!" Methos gripped his knees with both hands. "It's not our decision to make! You could've lived your whole life, died old and peaceful."

Alex snorted and cut him a hard look. "If I'd known, I could have done things differently!"

"Yes! Exactly! It would've changed how you lived, the course of your life." Methos sighed and squeezed on Alex's kneecaps lightly while he gathered his thoughts. When he glanced up again, he looked as young and earnest as Alex had ever seen him. "It changes you"—he shook him for emphasis—"and not just the obvious. Poets lose their gift. Musicians can't find their passion. There's . . . a fire in you, always in you, burning me up from the night we met . . ." He shook his head, adrift, lost on the possibilities.

Alex took pity and chewed at his lower lip for a second. "What if I wasn't me anymore."

"I'm sorry . . . I know it doesn't seem fair . . ."

But he understood. He wondered what he'd have done with the knowledge. Shot himself? Unlikely. Only—only because you could never be 100% sure.

He touched Methos's cheek with his thumb.

They stared at one another for a moment, and then Methos started to rub a small circle into his thigh thoughtfully.

"We're going to have to develop a fighting style for you," he said at length, and then got up so he could sit at Alex's side.

Alex huffed, too shaken by this new version of the world to do much more.

Methos bumped shoulders with him to get his attention, and he glanced over.

That small, serious mouth pulled into a mischievous grin. "Alex Krycek, welcome to your immortality."

 

***

 

Year 2031 - Prosthease Medical Building #2

 

"Recovery is on the second floor, elevators to your left." The receptionist looked up with a pleasant, seemingly genuine smile and tapped the U-shaped cradle on the counter.

Methos held his glaiz under the sweeping, brushed metal arm, and it vibrated gently against his wrist after a moment.

"How long are visiting hours?" he asked, and the look she gave him edged on a laugh.

"No restrictions for you, sir."

He nodded and started down the hall before the deepening blush and silly grin became too obvious.

Someone with too thoroughly modern a design aesthetic had put this building together. Every surface gleamed with perfection, from the amber-marble floor to the artificial sunlight. The walls were all live displays, the same tech in the glaiz bands that kept the world indexed, accessible, connected, catalogued, tracked, and invasive. If you asked a cynic.

The band pulsed lightly twice, indicating a left turn up ahead.

Prothease had had one of the most tremendous IPOs of the twenty-first century. They burst onto the market, bathed in cash, and seemingly plastered it all over their public facility. One could have made a fortune.

Two insistent pulses against his wrist told Methos to TURN NOW, bringing him to the elevator. The haptic interface used a crescendo into indicate upward motion and generated sensations on the underside of his first two fingers through nerve stimulation, in case he'd forgotten the floor.

He walked silently, feeling a bit like, well, death, in his black coat and black jeans, among all the primly white-clad company nurses and doctors. He knew when he was getting close, long before the glaiz could tell him. The buzz skittered across his scalp and fluttered through his stomach. Even expecting it, it still put him on edge, and he found himself watching everyone in the hallway a bit more closely.

The glaiz started jumping wildly when he reached the door, and he tapped it with one finger to calm it down.

Methos slipped into Alex's room and stood just inside the doorway for a moment, watching.

He was asleep and tucked tightly into the institutional bedding. He looked serene. And still as beautiful as a Paris night.

Methos felt a spark in his chest, a bursting bubble of pleasant relief at finding a familiar Immortal still alive. It would end badly someday. Revenge heaped upon revenge. But future sorrows should not cheapen today's joys.

Methos hung his coat and sat in the visitor's chair, content to wait and read.

Alex's breathing changed halfway through a grisly murder scene with far too much attention to detail. Methos tapped the display dark and sat up straighter. He remained still as Alex's eyes opened and darted quickly around the room, knowing he was not alone.

"Just me," Methos offered, and slowly stood.

A smile spread across Alex's face. "You came," he said, throat a little dry from disuse.

Methos returned an apologetic grin and sat on the edge of the bed. He had earned that tone of disbelief, he supposed. "Sorry I wasn't here when you went in." He shrugged one shoulder. "I was in Thailand." And had a known penchant for shutting off his glaiz when he left civilization.

Alex nodded and looked him over like he expected to see something new. Or maybe just admiring the view. How he could still blush from that after all this time . . .

Methos ducked his head a little and focused his gaze on Alex's left side and the mass under the blankets there. Alex followed his look and swallowed hard.

"Well," Methos said, adopting a light tone and shoving at Alex's exposed arm. "Let's see it."

Alex shifted uneasily, sitting up a little more in the bed, and slowly pulled the blankets down.

A bright red arm gleamed back at them with accents of bronzy gold. The metal flowed up and over his shoulder, a better anchor point for the weight. It had the thickness and curve of real muscle and sectioned plates, perhaps for easy maintenance. Methos stared, entranced as Alex carefully touched the forearm with his real fingers.

He jumped.

"Alex?"

The metal hand slowly lifted and turned. The fingers articulated open, then closing to a fist. Neither of them breathed, and in the silence they could hear the whirr of the servos in the mechanics. Alex turned to look at him with an indescribable expression, a wide-eyed wonder.

Methos lifted his eyebrows in hopeful encouragement, and Alex slowly reached for him.

Metal fingers touched his cheek, cool, but not cold.

Alex's breath punched out in a something like a sob.

"I can feel you," he whispered over a tight throat. He looked like he wanted to say more, but emotion flooded his eyes, and it was all he could do to blink and keep breathing.

Methos turned into the cool, smooth surface and on impulse sucked one of the fingers into his mouth. He applied pressure and hummed, suddenly lusting to sully such a pristine institution. He worked his tongue along the underside in long, coaxing strokes. And traced the joint edges, machined to a comfortable roundness. Nothing to catch or cut.

It felt strange, such unyielding surfaces. But the finger heated with the temperature of his body and responded in some ways like a real one would, flexing to his movements.

"That feels . . . weird," Alex said.

Methos sucked hard and drew off, cleaning away as much saliva as he could. He rested so the tip of the finger lay just above his lip and gave his partner a long look.

"Weird good, weird bad?"

"Weird . . . I'll work with it."

Alex moved his new hand, and Methos's cheek suddenly exploded with pain.

The world toppled, and he found himself on the floor, blinking up at the ceiling. His jaw screamed and throbbed. Somewhere in the background, he heard Alex shout and throw off his blankets.

And Methos . . . laughed. He stared up at Alex's horrified face and could not, on his very life, stop giggling. Alex's jaw hung open in confusion as Methos got to his feet, shaking with humor.

"Vse khorosho," Methos told him, rubbing his jaw. He dropped back down onto the bed, grinning like a fool, while Alex sat back shaken and scowling down at his new arm.

"You've got a mean left hook," Methos told him, still massaging out the pain.

Alex glanced at him briefly, chagrined, and back down at the arm resting in his lap, frowning like it had betrayed him. That would not do. Not on this day of wonders.

Methos leaned over and peered down at it with excessive interest, before catching Alex's eye.

"Did it have to look like Iron Man?" he asked, in his best derisively judgmental voice.

Alex's eyebrows shot up, and his lips curved into a smile. "Look who joined the 20th century."

Methos rolled his eyes. "You made me watch them!"

"And you made me watch La Règle du jeu," Alex challenged.

Methos shook his head and looked away, muttering under his breath. "Uncultured swine."

"Elitist pig." Alex poked him in a ticklish spot on his side, and he responded as anyone would—with a yelp and hearty retaliation.

They squawked with childlike laughter and parried wriggling fingers. Alex jerked to one side, and then Methos found himself pulled onto the bed and crushed to his chest, trapped in an embrace. He panted into Alex's neck, giddy, and Alex held him tight.

Tighter, he realized, than he ever had. The incongruity made him freeze. The man beneath him smelled like Alex, sounded like him. And yet the even pressure of two arms across his back was not the lover's embrace he had come to know.

He felt Alex's chest rise and fall with quick, tense breaths that said he too had noted the strangeness.

Methos remembered to breathe and pressed up just enough that he could see Alex's face.

"You didn't even think about it, did you?" he asked quietly.

Alex stared at him in stunned silence and shook his head lightly, small movements. His eyes shone, and he slowly let go.

They sat up, and Methos watched Alex inspect this new part of himself, a sensate limb after so many decades of only phantom pains. His eyes welled as he turned to look at the forearm. He moved his wrist. A smile, fearful of too much joy, burst across his face, bringing tears right to the edge. He flexed his fingers, each one moving with tiny whirs.

The moment he'd stopped thinking about it, using it had become instinctive.

Alex held his new hand up and aimed the palm in Methos's direction.

Methos eyed the white circle in the center skeptically.

"It's not going to blast me, is it?"

The circle suddenly glowed, and Alex smirked.

"Flashlight," he said. "Thought it might be handy."

Methos groaned at him, rolling his eyes.

Alex turned the light off, presumably with a thought, but he still held his hand out, fingers quivering like flesh would have. He waited. It was a request.

Methos placed his hand up to the metal one, palm to palm. His long fingers peeked out over the edges. They'd fashioned it as a match to the flesh arm, then. He peered at the glimmering metal, a work of art beyond technology.

"How's it powered?" he asked.

"Blood glucose." Alex did not life his gaze from their hands. "I'll have to eat a lot of candy now."

Methos huffed and smirked. "And if it gets too low?"

"It shuts off."

He nodded at the sensible design and then pressed against Alex's palm, testing the sensitivity to pressure.

Alex gave way, and he heard his breath hitch in time to see two hard-fought tears roll down his cheeks.

"Thanks for being here," Alex said softly.

Methos smiled at him, heart pulsing with tender ache. "I wouldn't have missed it."

Nodding, Alex shifted his hand slightly and intertwined their fingers, holding on just enough.

Not too tight.