Breaking Down by Sylvan
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Author's Notes:
I had completely forgotten that this story existed. *shockshockshock*

This tale raises some edgey issues involving rape (of children and of adults). There's also some fun sex. Disclaimer: Methos and the concept of Immortality expressed in this tale belong to Rysher. I am using him and their ideas without permission. I doubt it will affect them at all, though. Grey, Tran, Mariah and their experiences are pretty much all products of my imagination. Special note of thanks to my betas: Dvorah Simon, who let me use her wonderful poem at the end of this tale. Nancy, who insisted on making the tale more interesting (she caused me to input the Serb soldiers). And to Katail, who did the final spelling/grammar run through before I passed this on to Quill.

Breaking Down

May 23rd, 1999

The grizzled sergeant, Nikola Mostelovic, was deep in thought. He had been in a constant state of, "What will we do now?" ever since he and twenty-one of his men deserted Kosovo.

They had crossed Serbia, seen the bombing in Belgrade, and decided to flee the country. They went into Romania, but could find no welcome in any of the cities or towns, the local police suspicious of them. Eventually they had crossed into Ukraine and headed toward the Carpathian Mountains, thinking to lose themselves among the unsophisticated country folk.

They were tired of hunting food in the woods, aching for a real meal. They were tired of the conviction that when NATO finally forced Milosovic to surrender, they would be among the first on trial for war crimes. Mostelovic was no fool, and neither were they. When confronting a war crimes trial, it was doubtful that the fact that they had just followed their orders would protect them. Albanian 'dogs' would testify that the men had raped and brutalized prisoners. Well, he smirked, the punishment fit the crime. Those trash deserved what they got for staying where they did not belong. However, he knew a war-crimes trial would never see it that way.

The plan, find their way into a city in some foreign nation and pass themselves off as refugees, had seemed like a good one at the time. However, no one was willing to take in Serbian refugees, and they refused to pass themselves off as Albanians. When considering other options, they had agreed not to become errand boys for some criminal. They had resorted to stealing, been forced to flee many cities by the criminal element, and they were running low on ammunition. They still had grenades and explosives packed carefully in the four jeeps, but those did nothing to improve the situation.

The routes they had been forced to take, owing to wars and general neglect, were rough and overgrown. The men were sick of the woods and the food they had to kill and cook over campfires. He was not sure he would be able to keep them together much longer. Once they began to desert each other, they would all too easily be picked off as foreigners, one by one.

When one pair of scouts informed him they had discovered a lone, occupied farmhouse, Mostelovic hid his relief expertly. A farmhouse meant cultivated food, comfortable beds and possibly even women. This would stave off the discontent for a while. And if they were lucky, it would be the end of all their problems.

Early summer mornings on the Ukraine side of the Carpathian Mountains were wonderful. Mist hung in the air and wandered in wisps through the coniferous forests. The world was gray and green. The heavy scent of pine sap pervaded the mist, and whispered with the movement of deer and other woodland animals. It was a lively area to live in, full of bear, wolves, deer, beaver, eagles and even the occasional heron.

There was a cottage built into a hillock. It was so overgrown only the curl of smoke from the chimney, disguised by a tree stump, gave anything away. This was the cottage Grey lived in when he was on break from monitoring the herd at its summer pasture. The inside of the cottage was in some ways at contrast with the outside. It was set up with a wide-screen television, a modern kitchen, air-conditioning and a satellite computer link.

Grey sat in front of the fire, knowing he had only bought himself a temporary respite. The only way to get Tran and Mariah off this course was to leave permanently, and they had Methos on their side. He was not ready to give up either his lover or his oldest friends. He held his cold hands out to the heat of the fire. He was being stubborn, he knew that. He closed his eyes and let the warmth seep into his fingers. He had sat out in the grass in front of the house to listen to nature as the sun rose and dozed off. Damned if he was going to lose any sleep over this. Three-thousand years old -- the forgetting of one year could not really be that important, could it?

Grey's fingers were beginning to sting, and he dropped his hands from the heat. He snorted at himself. What was important about one year? It was only the first year he had spent as Tran's slave. He had owned slaves himself before that. He knew the lessons for a man -- or woman -- who had not been enslaved before were harsh and terrible. What of it? Of course Tran had been cruel to him. It simply paid back all the cruelties Grey himself had committed as a master.

He used a poker to stir the fire. At least Etienne was too young to pester him about things he would rather let lie. He chuckled at the thought and put the poker back. At two years old, the child was already a spitfire. Talkative and not at all shy, with straight, pale-blonde hair that floated in wisps about his head when he ran, the brown-eyed child who Tran said would be Immortal. Tran had found the baby boy in a state-run home in Paris. Grey and Mariah had attempted to adopt Etienne legally, but it had proved impossible. When Tran and an old friend of his had exposed the director of the home as operator of a child-pornography-prostitution ring, they gave up the legal route and kidnapped Etienne.

Life had suddenly become very interesting. Suddenly facts such as Ukraine's mortality rate being twice its birth-rate became of vital importance to them. The fact that there were a number of minorities in the country also became important. What if Ukraine went as mad as its neighbors? Ethnic cleansing brought a shudder to him. Though they had lived here for almost a century, for about a decade they had been considering moving to the United States. They themselves had little to fear, but now there was Etienne to care for. To transport the horses across the ocean? They would have to get the animals down to the Black Sea first....

The logistics of moving the farm were a pleasant distraction and he smiled. He settled again in front of the fire, resting his cheek on his knees. An unrecognizable Immortal Presence slid into his awareness. The tingles it sent through his body, the throb in his head as adrenaline surged were all familiar. With absolute calm he reached out and took his heavy sword from its place on the mantle. It was probably Methos, but Grey would take no chances.

A low voice sounded from the other side of the door. "Grey?"

Yes, it was Methos. Grey sighed and replaced his sword. They had not even been able to enjoy each other this visit. Then again this cottage had a very large bed.... Pleased at the thought, he went to open the door. "Come on in." Methos looked at him uncertainly before stepping in. Grey gave him plenty of space, but locked the door. "Good morning."

"Good morning." Methos smiled slightly, his eyes warm but searching Grey's face.

So, we're still on my memories, are we? Grey shook his head and stepped close. Methos' cheeks were flushed from the cold, so Grey kissed them each gently, unzipping the heavy leather jacket and slipping it off his lover's shoulders. He put the jacket on the coat-rack next to the door, turned Methos around and headed him towards the fireplace to warm up. "Would you like some hot cider?"

Methos turned to face Grey, looking surprised. "Cider?"

"Yeah. I like cider," Grey said innocently, clasping his wrists behind his back and tilting his head with a most charming smile.

Methos grinned back at him, relaxing in subtle signs of easing shoulders. "Yes, please."

Grey brought cider for them both. He waited until their cups were empty before taking Methos' hands in his. He stroked the long fingers and shook his head at the question in those wonderful eyes. "Can't I get a break from this?"

Methos grinned and ducked his head. Lifting his eyes to meet Grey's with a daring expression, he said, "What if I told you I just came to jump your bones?"

"Li'l ol' me?" Grey cocked his head and batted his eyelashes coquettishly. "Why suh, that's hahdly a gentlemanly thing to do."

Methos burst out laughing. He drew Grey close and caressed his face. "I could do that. Shall I make it the carrot? You go through this thing and I will give you a night you'll never forget?"

Grey leaned his head against Methos' palm and studied his lover's eyes. Brown, but not entirely brown. They had a trick of changing with the light. Always changing, to whatever he needed to be at the time. So what did Grey need to be? Idly he thought, in bed with him. He lifted his left hand, settling his fingers on the juncture where Methos' neck met head. He applied pressure on the nerve center and covered Methos' lips with his own to inhale the gasp. He could always appreciate such a man of easy surrender and enthusiastic domination. I want you, he thought and gave himself over for a time to exploring again his love's sweet mouth. His blood was high when he released the trembling, glaze-eyed Methos. He brushed his thumb over the still-parted lips. Had Methos come from the main house alone? "Where are Tran and Mariah?"

Methos shivered. "Outside in the pasture."

Grey nodded. "All right." He stroked Methos' face with both hands until the trembling eased. Then he held his lover's gaze. "What if I change?"

Methos blinked. "Change is inevitable." His skin flushed under Grey's gaze and he closed his eyes, pushing his head against his lover's palms. "You can face anything. Don't be afraid."

Grey shook his head and brushed noses. "You can face anything." He sighed and stood. "This is my shadow and I jump at it."

"Silly of you," Methos murmured softly, standing up and leaning against him. "We will be here." Methos wrapped his arms around Grey's waist and held him close.

Grey stretched out on the bed naked. His body was covered only by the thin, white sheet and he closed his eyes. The room's temperature was warm but not too warm. He felt Methos touch his lips gently and heard a whisper in his left ear, "I've had fantasies a little like this."

Grey snorted. "This is not the time to make me laugh."

There was a ripple of soft laughter from Tran on his right and Mariah at the foot of the bed. Tran spoke, his voice firm yet affectionate. The element of ancient ritual tinged his tone like a prayer. "We will go with you inside, but there is a point at which you will be alone. You know this. Methos will be our anchor in the event we lose our way."

Grey nodded without opening his eyes. The traditional acknowledgement came to his lips with ease. "I hear you. I understand."

It was time. Silence around him, but for their breathing and his. He slowed his breathing, felt the pace of his heart as a rapid beat, like the thundering of hooves. The world outside him settled into waiting stillness. He was going in and not out. It was tempting to pretend he had lost his way and swing his focus outwards. He sighed to himself, and turned in. He had known about the darkness inside of him for twenty-five centuries. Whatever it hid was from so long ago that it should no longer matter. Why not get it over with?

He brushed against the other three Presences as he turned. They caught at his edges and gently urged him down the winding passages of his mind. He slipped down with them, past images he had forgotten. There he skittered around the memory of Meerschweine's commandant. Here he lingered through the memory of Jo. His friends nudged him gently and he moved on, passing older memories of lovers and enemies, of other Immortals and the yearning beauties of desert nights. Perhaps they could move to Arizona? That was a rather pleasant state.

He stepped onto a path whose purpose he knew, though he had never followed his own. This path led to his Quiet Place. It led to his center and to the darkness that shaded that area of his mind. He stopped there, before the black emptiness. Yes, this was wrong. It should be different. There should at least be a barrier. What will I find here? What have I lost with only a year of memory? He stepped inside the blackness.

He was alone and frightened. He could feel pressure all around him but when he tried to move against it, the substance gave way like... like quicksand? It was gooey, slimy like rotten bodies. There was a battlefield stench that seemed to crawl into his lungs, stick to his eyes. He felt a moment's hysteria, for he had no body in this place. Ridiculous Grey, he said to himself. Nothing here can hurt you. No physical damage, anyway.

There should be something here. He was certain. Yet he could feel nothing. I want to leave. The wish was the action. He felt himself sliding outwards. It took a great effort to stop. Here I must not be conflicted. He had already made the decision, however reluctantly. All that remained was to learn what was here that made him so afraid.

If it was a place without solid substance, then perhaps substance could be created. Grey moved back to what his instincts insisted was the center of all this. No body in this place, remember? he told himself. He reached out and gathered what gunk he could reach to himself. Instinct, damn it. What do I do? He let go of thought, and became.

Coalesce, coalesce. It must come together. That was what he felt and that was what he attempted to do. The substance he held and pushed at became something, and he did not know what. It had a rough surface, stringy substance stuck out here and there. He could not see in the darkness. He kept working, condensing more substance in close, and forming it into shapes he did not recognize. Following his instincts, he eventually built what seemed to be a wall.

So tired. He fell against the wall and leaned there, barely aware enough to recognize that he had created a space empty of the slime and smell. Something touched and pulled at him. He slipped and fell out of the darkness into dry warmth.

"Grey," a rumble in his ear. He shifted, felt cloth scratch against his chest, sensed walls, floors and ceiling about him. Solid surfaces. A breath brought warm air, the mingled human scents and a slight pain in his nostrils. Hot hands holding his, caressing his face. He flinched in surprise, but then everything receded as he adjusted.

"Hey," he tried to speak but his throat ached. He opened his eyes as three sets of hands helped him to sit. Tran and Mariah were on his left, Methos on his right. Tran held out a glass to him and helped him drink. Green taste, he swished it in his mouth. It was Gatorade. What a funny drink, though refreshing. It had an amazing greenish-yellow flavor. The texture was slick, and he rolled it around on his tongue before swallowing. Dizzily amused, he started laughing.

His beloveds' hands all pressed firmly, holding his senses together. Methos asked, "What are you laughing about?" with a smile and twinkle of his own.

"Gatorade tastes weird," Grey answered him. "How would you taste right now?" he murmured, studying the fine-lipped mouth. Then his attention tumbled to Mariah, and he reached to touch her hair, that marvelous, heavy, black silk under his fingers. He lifted a lock and bent to inhale its scent. Apple blossoms, he thought. So fresh and alive, like her. They smiled at each other and leaned together before Grey's attention wavered again and he almost fell, turning to Tran. He noted with new sight the health in that face. Tran was eating more, these days. Sleeping better too, with Mariah directly caring for him. "You look good," Grey said softly. Beautiful, with soft, bow shaped lips, wide-spread cheekbones and almost-black eyes. He stretched out a hand to stroke, light as a feather, the soft skin just below Tran's earlobe.

Tran cleared his throat and drew back, blushing. "You've been in for eight hours. We made soup."

The soup smelled good, too. Barley soup with bits of potatoes, thick and tasty. Grey felt like he could taste each ingredient as he took a spoonful into his mouth. He sat still and indulged in the flavors, feeling the heat of the potatoes turn to a kind of sweet, satisfying thickness when he chewed on them. His fingers felt the warm, hard, silver spoon in his hand. He snickered, remembering a time when only the very rich had actual silver to eat with. Well, he and the others were very rich. He luxuriated in being spoiled. As he ate, he described what he had felt and done in his core.

Methos twiddled with the finger-sized glass birds on the bed stand. He glanced up, his eyes a twinkle of curiosity, and said thoughtfully, "You're rebuilding your barriers."

Grey stretched his neck and tilted his head to the side, feeling the slight strain in his tendons. He considered his lover's words and said, "The imagery does seem straightforward, but I have barriers already. What would be the point of rebuilding a defunct one? No, this must have some other purpose." He was shaken by a strong desire to turn back inside and continue building. I have to find out what is there. He glanced up and met Tran's eyes. For only an instant he read fear in those dark depths, before his beloved friend looked away. He's afraid.... Surprised, Grey reached out and took Tran's head in his hands, stroking the spots under his old friend's ears with both thumbs. "It can't be that bad," he whispered.

Tran leaned into the touch for a moment, then ducked his head and pulled away, flushing. "You'd better get some sleep. We'll start again in the morning."

Grey nodded, the bone-tiredness assaulting his soul at Tran's reminder. Normally he would be tucking Etienne in bed by now. Of course, with all this going on they had settled the child with the Ymeragas. For almost fifteen years straight that family had cared for the farm when Grey and the others were gone, in exchange for tutoring of their children. Now the Ymeragas also served as baby-sitters. How long before they noticed that their neighbors did not seem to age? What did they think about the sudden arrival of a child at the farm? He lifted his head alertly and asked, "How's Etienne?"

"He's fine. We called Ygienie about an hour ago, he said he was asleep."

Methos shook his head as the three went off into a brief discussion about the boy. How was it that with so many Immortals born over the years, so few had ever raised another of their kind from infancy? He looked at Grey, at the hollow darkness under his lover's eyes and was reminded of the drain that had caused them to pull Grey out of his heart. Methos reached out, just to touch his chin and bring that wavering attention to center on himself. "You should sleep," he said softly.

Grey smiled and leaned towards Methos. His expression was dreamy, eyes glazed with exhaustion, half as though he would fall over. "Not alone?"

Mariah stretched out her hand and stroked Grey's hair. "Methos will be with you. We will be in the next room."

He grinned, still gazing at Methos. "The bed's plenty big enough for all of us."

Tran chuckled and said, "Invite us again when this is over."

With the other two in the next room, Methos settled Grey down and slipped under the sheet with him. He kept up a constant pattern of stroking touches on his lover's face and chest, not meant to arouse, but meant to ground him. Grey uttered a happy sigh and tried to return the touches, but his hands were trembling, and he clearly could barely move. Eventually, though, his face grew troubled. He frowned pensively and moved closer to Methos.

Methos watched the darkness shutter Grey's eyes, the downward curl of his lips. This man was not the moody sort and so he was concerned. "What is it? Tell me."

Grey shifted his head until he could look Methos in the eye. "A memory from my childhood. The first time I was taken."

Oh, yes. He was only half-surprised. Sometimes it seemed as though almost half the people in the world were molested as children. If he had been, he did not remember it. He squeezed Grey's shoulder. "You were raped?"

"No." Grey frowned and hesitated for a long moment. Then he said, with a twinkle of wry laughter, "Yes, no, yes, no, yes, no, yes. Can you call it rape if it's a custom of your people?"

Methos touched Grey's nose, stroked down it with his fingertips. "Yes, you can. That is how customs change. Someone decides they are wrong."

"It wasn't me." Grey sighed and pulled closer, laying his cheek against Methos'. He started to speak but jumped at a sudden burst of laughter from outside the room. He waited until the sound died down, smiling, and cleared his throat. "All boys at their fifth spring were taken to meet the masters, who chose apprentices from among them. And when the boys reached their eighth spring, their masters were to take them." He fell silent and shook his head. Another spate of giggling from outside the room. Grey murmured, "Hard to hold a serious conversation with those two around." He smiled slightly. After a time he began again, and they both ignored the continuing soft laughter. "I had no parents, the Wise Man had always been my master. So it was no surprise." Grey shifted around, digging his hands under Methos' body. He buried his forehead against his lover's shoulder. "It hurt so much. I went to my Baba. His mother. She held me like I was a child again. I said when it was my time I would never hurt my apprentices like that. She rocked me and said she knew I wouldn't. She was just indulging a boy in his fantasy."

Methos held his lips together until he could breathe cleanly again. Oh, yes. He had taken young boys, in a society or two where that had been the way of things. He had not always been careful, either. What would Grey think of him if he knew that? Methos steered his thoughts away. "And when you had your own apprentice?"

"I never did. I died and became their god before it could become an issue."

Methos rubbed his hands down Grey's back, working at the stiff knots in the warm, hard muscles under his fingers. He felt his own guilt. No, Grey had avoided the trap of doing unto others as had been done onto him. It would be better to not mention the times Methos had mentored young boys. Legalized pedophilia. Someone decides the customs are wrong, but it wasn't me. He bit his lip and asked softly, "Why bring it up?"

Grey sighed against Methos' skin. "I didn't remember it until now." His lover squeezed him, but said nothing. He gripped the current of anguish that had come with the memory and pushed it off so that he could speak, lifting his head and gazing into Methos' sad eyes. "You know things about Tran and I that I don't know. Answer me this --"

Methos' eyes went wide and his lips parted in protest. "Grey --"

He laid his fingers firmly against Methos' lips, then leaned in to brush their noses together. "Just this, lover." He took a deep breath and tried to calm the frantic beat of his heart. "Did I rape -- or try to rape -- Tran? Is that what happened?"

Methos stiffened, looking startled. It gave Grey a considerable relief and answered the question even as he watched his lover wrestle with his conscience. At last, Methos said quietly, "I think if you had, you would not be alive to ask."

Grey dropped his head onto Methos' chest. "Thank you."

Disgruntled, Methos shifted beneath him and murmured, "We're to avoid saying anything that will color your perceptions."

Grey smiled and closed his eyes. "Fear can color perceptions, too." He said nothing else and neither did Methos, though they held each other close. Slowly, the breathing under him steadied, and he sensed his lover drift off. Content for the moment, Grey let himself follow suit. He slipped into the waiting darkness and stayed there, as time ceased. Just before he would have fallen completely asleep, he felt an inward dip. He hesitated. He could just burrow into the darkness, spend the night in restless dreams. He could do that, but he did not really want to. There was so much waiting for him, he could feel it. So much still to do. He shifted, his focus swinging to the depths of himself as he skipped down the paths to his center.

Mariah and Tran snuggled naked under the covers of the sofa-bed. The room was lit by a dim, yellow glow from the end-table's lamp. They kept a steady link between them, being physically close enough that it was not draining. Tran blushed when Mariah sent a warm, enticing pulse to him. She smiled and reached a finger out to lightly stroke the same spot beneath Tran's right ear that Grey had gone for, earlier. "What's this about?" she asked softly, mock-innocence in her emotional field.

Tran was shivering slightly, his thoughts sparking and dancing. "I taught him to touch me there. The first time we were lovers."

Mariah cocked her head and opened her eyes wide in mock-surprise. Teasing him, she asked, "Why didn't you tell me about it? Not that I mind discovering your erogenous zones...."

Tran's skin flushed darkly. He closed his eyes and chewed on his lower lip, trying to breathe steadily. Being seduced was always such an interesting experience. "I shouldn't tell you what to do." His emotions churned with embarrassed desire and a small thread of guilt.

Mariah purred and sat up, only to bend down to begin brushing that tender spot with her lips. "I want you to tell me what pleasures you," she whispered in his ear. She flicked the spot with her tongue.

Surprised need curled out from him. It had been so long since he had allowed anyone to touch him there. His hand closed convulsively on Mariah's arm -- too tightly, for he was strong. It caused her a brief burst of pain. He gasped and let go quickly, but she caught his hand and returned it to its place. "Stop being afraid of yourself," she whispered in his ear.

He laughed breathlessly and squeezed her arm. The surge of mingled fear and increasing desire he felt now was both wonderful and alarming. I've got to adjust....

So close, she picked up his thoughts and answered them. No you don't. Not so much, at least. Let yourself feel. She nibbled her way to the left side of his head and gently lipped beneath his ear, stroking the right side with her finger. The sensation built, coursing through his body. He could not stop from digging his fingers into her arm, but she encouraged him, stoking his need higher with other touches. "Tell me," she whispered when he felt like liquid fire, "where else feels so good?"

He could barely move, for he felt like he might fall apart at any moment. There was the flesh along his hips and the tender skin of his inner thighs. His thoughts carried to her when he could not speak them. She deliberately tickled him until he howled, his paralysis broken. "Oh, that's not fair!" he sputtered when she relented long enough.

"Then you make it fair!" she challenged him.

Adroit and cunning, he did. The collarbone and armpits were two of her most ticklish areas, and she could not defend herself adequately when he kept switching between them. At last she pleaded, "Stop, stop! We'll disturb them!"

Tran chuckled against her chest. "I'm sure we already have."

"Then we must be very quiet," she whispered. She touched a finger to her lips, then moved it down to stroke the skin above his hips and set him shivering again. "Here?" she asked teasingly.

"Yes..." he answered.

He returned the tantalizing touch with one of his own, kissing the hollow between her breasts, then moving left. The silence in the room was broken only occasionally, as one or the other of them asked, "Here?" and was answered, "Yes."

Like a whip crack, or like the first time he had heard dynamite blow, the roll of deep thunder drew Methos from sleep. Something cool touched his chest. He reached to move it, only to find it was a hand. He sat up quickly, dislodging the hand, hearing another roll of thunder outside as he reached around and found the cord for the lamp.

The light illuminated the sheet-covered body beside him. Grey had fallen asleep lying on his stomach, with one hand on Methos' chest as was his wont. Now he lay, still as death, not seeming to breathe. His eyes were closed and his lips looked dark in the dim light.

Methos called sharply, "Tran! Mariah!" He was sure they would hear him and come quickly. In the meantime, he searched for a sign of life in his lover's still body. Immortals don't just die in their sleep! He felt it in the vein of Grey's neck; the slow pulse that meant the heart still beat. But was he breathing? "Grey, wake up," he whispered.

He felt the impact of bodies on the mattress, and then Tran and Mariah were there on the other side of Grey, the woman in a flow of lilac nightgown, Tran in boxers. Mariah touched Grey's forehead with her palm and closed her eyes. Methos thought he felt her, the shifting action of her mind, whatever she was doing.

After a moment she opened her troubled, dark eyes. "He's focused inward. But his body is weakening; it's a good thing he's Immortal."

"But if he dies while he's in there? Will his mind find its way out?!" Methos asked. The thought was frightening. He had been the anchor when Grey had gone inside earlier. Without an anchor, could his lover become lost? Immortality only protected against physical damage.

Mariah was shaking her head. "I don't know. We can't leave him like this. He has to come back to sustain his body."

Methos glanced at the clock beside the table. It was five in the morning. Wonderful. On cue, thunder rolled far above the house. He turned his head to see Tran leaning down, a hand moving to touch Grey's face.

Mariah intercepted Tran. "Be gentle," she told him softly.

He looked startled, but nodded and touched Grey's cheek, closing his eyes. Methos felt the sudden undertow as the majority of Tran's attention swept into the other man. It was disorienting to feel the motion of another person's mind, and he shivered. Please don't let Grey lose his mind. I hate this. This kind of thing is why I never wanted to be gifted.

Tran knew the way in well. Just because last night had been the first time in over a thousand years that he had traversed those paths did not change their familiarity. There was still no barrier, just that sudden change from shimmering light to a mass of darkness. He could not go in there, or he would distort whatever it was Grey was doing. He cursed to himself. He had not thought this out. Granted, Mariah would probably have had the same problem if she had come in instead, but he should have considered his strategy beforehand. This would not have happened before. He sighed. No, many things would not have happened. Better that there should be change.

He "shouted" into the darkness. "Grey! Come out!" He could not feel any response. On the outside was the stillness of someone close to death. Inside was the blackness that let no sign through. Methos' question had gone straight to the heart of Tran's fears. If Grey dies while he's in here, will he find his way out?

Calm down, think this through. How to get his attention if he's in his heart? What had Nagano, the Immortal who taught them to walk the inner paths, said? "He must heal himself. You can not take the responsibility from him. The most you can do is make certain he does not die before he is finished." And Nagano had cautioned them to never ever take that inward journey without someone present to serve as a touchstone. Tran groaned and hovered in that space just before the area that he should not step into.

A shock. Something to draw Grey's attention. But what? Grey was curious, investigative. Tran concentrated, changing the image he projected. Something that slavers and has a long tail that drags on the ground like a snake. Something smelling of sewage and rot. Something with fangs and bristly hair. He moved in that illusory shape along the edge of the darkness, snuffling perilously close to it. He ran long, cracked claws along the edge and poked threateningly at it.

When he sensed the first vague stirring in the darkness, he pretended to ignore it. The change came with unexpected swiftness. A blur of silver light, vaguely human in shape, sprang from the darkness and leaped towards him. Not dropping his shape, Tran whirled and barreled out of there with the silver awareness in sharp pursuit.

He fell backwards into Mariah's arms. The sudden transition into light and warmth shocked him and he drew several breaths, clinging to her warm body. Barely an instant later he heard a gasping cough behind him, as of someone coming back from a death.

Between coughs, Grey gasped out "What was that?!" Then he was sitting up, rubbing his arms and clutching feebly at his throat, his eyes closed against the light. He opened them, closed them tightly again, then opened them halfway. "Oh, a dream." This was followed by more coughing.

Methos came back into the room carrying a tray on which were four steaming teacups, a sugar cup and a small pitcher of cream. He scooped some sugar into a cup and handed it to Grey. His eyes twinkled with amused relief as he sat down. "See what happens when you go to work without us?" he teased lightly.

Grey blinked, holding the cup unsteadily as he tried to control his coughing. He shook his head, wrinkling his nose. "What?"

Mariah had an arm about Tran's waist and was holding him close. She reached out her other hand to touch Grey's shoulder. "What have you been doing?"

He swallowed, then took a long sip of the tea. For a moment he did not speak, simply leaning back against the headboard and pulling himself together. He smiled at Methos and murmured his thanks before twining Mariah's fingers in his own. "I was dreaming. Wasn't I?"

Tran shook himself and leaned forward. He said sternly, "No, you weren't. You went back in. Dammit, Grey! You were dying and I didn't know how to get you back!"

Grey was startled and braced his back against the headboard. The unyielding wood at his back steadied him even as he was shaken by the almost wild anger emanating from Tran. "Dying?" he murmured, his eyes wide.

Tran's eyes narrowed and sparked. "Yes! Don't go in without us again!"

For an instant, startled confusion reigned in Grey, then from nowhere came a surge of pure outrage. "Don't tell me what to do!" he snarled, leaning forward and almost falling over. Methos snatched the teacup from his hand before he could spill it. As quickly as it had come the outrage ebbed, and he was left with confusion as to its source. He met Tran's eyes and saw in them shame and grief. Oh, that's not right. You don't have to be ashamed. He reached out and cupped Tran's chin. "I don't know why I'm angry," he said softly. "I understand your concerns."

Tran shivered and shook his head, then rubbed his cheek against Grey's palm. "I shouldn't tell you what to do. But please, resist temptation without us. Please?"

The idea of resisting temptation struck a chord of amusement in Grey and he smiled. "I will." He pulled away and put his palms over Methos' hands to lift the teacup. He drank it slowly, squeezing gently, all the time gazing into his lover's eyes, radiating affectionate challenge.

Methos swallowed and muttered, "Incorrigible."

"No, one-track mind. But too tired to do anything," Grey answered with a smirk. He turned to his companions. "And what was all that giggling about last night?"

Mariah and Tran looked at each other and blinked. At last they said together, "Discovering ticklish spots."

But Grey's eyes were falling closed and he was starting to slump. He slurred, "Meros? Summing inna tea?"

"Just a sedative, lover. You need to sleep. Real sleep."

Grey grunted and fell back, Methos easing him gently onto the pillow. Mariah glared at the Eldest. "Next time tell him first," she said icily.

Dismayed by her anger, Methos opened his mouth but was not certain what to say. "I --" he started to speak.

She cut him off with a shake of her head. Her tone was softer, though her gaze still severe. "Perhaps you should drink the tea, too. Then you will be awake when he is."

Methos blushed. "Yes, of course," he answered softly. He drank the rest of the cup of tea and snuggled down beside Grey. Soon he could feel himself going under the sedative.

A hand touched his forehead and he heard Mariah's voice in his mind. "Rest easy. We'll stand the watch." Her presence was reassuring, though with a faint edge of motherly scolding, and he was amused while he fell into the darkness.

Mariah shook her head and looked at Tran. "It must be a rather strong sedative," she said softly.

"Yes, they're quite out. Are you really angry with him?" he looked askance at her.

She shook her head again and caught his hands in her own, lying down so that her head was on his lap. "He used to be a doctor, but I think you should both be aware...."

"Of what?" Tran asked when she did not complete her thought.

She hesitated for a long moment. At last she spoke with reluctance. "When Grey finishes, he will probably be different."

Tran had told Mariah everything he could. How he had taken Grey and enslaved him, eventually coming to love him. How, when trapped in a nightmare of being tortured again by the Immortal who had once enslaved and raped him, he had mistaken Grey for that man and destroyed his mind. How the efforts he made to repair the damage failed, leaving Grey with no memory of the time from which he was initially enslaved, to several days after the attack which had left him, for a time, a vegetable.

Tran sighed and let his shoulders wilt. "Will he hate me, do you think?"

She smiled up at him. "No. But I think he will no longer be content to let the world go by. Remember how he responded when you were angry with him? First he drew back, then he became angry."

"And he said not to tell him what to do."

"In all my life I've never seen him snap back at you."

Tran chuckled. "He has more subtle ways of getting around my objections."

"Oh, yes." She let loose his fingers and reached to touch his hair. He closed his eyes to enjoy the simple touch. He heard her say, "I told Ygienie we are moving to the United States. He was surprised, but then he said his parents have been arranging to move there for the last two months!"

He opened his eyes in surprise. "Truly?" She made an affirmative noise, nodding. "I wonder where they want to live...."

"Ygienie asked where we would settle. He wants to live near us."

"But we'll probably be very far from civilization --"

"We shouldn't go too far. Etienne will need schooling, and should have children his own age to socialize with."

Practical as ever. Tran chuckled in appreciation. Teasingly, he said, "After those two high school kids you want him to go to school?"

She smiled up at him, her lips rosy in the dim light of the lamp. "I think things will quiet down after the turn of the Millennium. People are always crazier than normal around this time."

"True." She was lovely, he thought, admiring again her wide forehead. He loved how oval her face was, how her upper lip was fuller than the lower and when she relaxed, she looked so utterly kissable. He ran his fingers lightly across her olive skin and she closed her eyes, pressing up into his touch. They would live close to civilization, of course. How long could they do so safely, though? Long enough for Etienne to reach maturity? Before, he and Dige would trade off identities. First Tran would present himself as Dige's son, then Dige would present himself two or three decades later as that son grown to adulthood. In the meantime, the other would stay out of sight. Mariah and Dige would sometimes travel for a decade at a time, exchanging with Tran and Grey, who were less enthusiastic about leaving for so long, but Mariah had convinced them they should see the world. Alternating was not quite as fun as going out all four together, but that they could only do once a century until the age of flight.

Now Dige was gone. Tran whispered, "I miss him."

Mariah opened her eyes and gazed into his, understanding exactly what he meant. "We will always remember him."


When Grey and Methos woke from their drugged sleep, Tran and Mariah were there to give them liquids, some soup, and to encourage Grey to come outside for a time. The storm was long past, though clouds still stretched across the sky. The air was heavy and wet, filled with the water-soaked scents of the pine trees. Grey's black Newfoundland, Goeff, engaged his master in wrestling.

Methos felt a slight pang of envy towards the dog. Grey had not touched him since they had woken. That was unusual. Yet there the man was, rolling over in the long grasses with the dog. They had spoken and none of the words or tones were odd, but there was a lingering... sadness. Yes, that was it. There was something that spoke of sadness in Grey's eyes. Are you disappointed with me? Methos wondered. Perhaps this was the first sign, that Grey's easy-going nature was changing.

Just as he thought that, Grey and the dog collided with his legs, knocking him into their wrestling match. His face was full of smelly dog-breath and then of wet, slobbery tongue. The dog's, of course. Grey's voice came from behind Geoff's head. "You're supposed to struggle. It's no fun if you just lie there.

"You're not angry?"

The dog was squished down on top of Methos' chest. Grey's head appeared over the animal's. His hands came down on Methos' shoulders, but he did not put his full weight down. Always gentle, Grey. "No. Why?"

"For drugging you."

"I was surprised," but Grey tilted his head, then tilted his whole body. "Go, Goeff. Go lie down." The dog whined and obeyed, moving off of Methos. Grey settled into the animal's place. Methos caught his breath at the warm press of their bodies. Startling how a few hours together without Grey touching him had made this moment intense. The expression on his lover's face said the same thing. The sadness had not disappeared.

Methos touched his face, stroked his nose with his fingers. "What's wrong?"

"I remember my first lover. Not that I'd forgotten him, but I remember..." he trailed off.

Methos put his arms around Grey and rolled them over. "What?"

Silver-gray eyes gazed into shifting brown and gold. Fraught with memory they reached back into the past. "It's so fragmented...."

The winter had been unusually bitter. The air was crisp and biting with cold. The sky during the day was clear to the edge of the world and so brilliantly blue it hurt the eyes to see it. Every scent was muffled by heavy snow that weighed down the trees. Only half-through and the village had already used up most of its stores. Children and the very old were starting to go hungry. Two old women had already been turned out to freeze in the night, thus relieving their families of useless mouths to feed. The leader and the most prominent men held council late one night and determined the only answer was to commit a raid on the next nearest village.

The young men stood in a group to receive protective charms. There were giggles and snickers throughout the crowd. The youngest men, fourteen years old, were either bare of chin or had wisps of hair. They eyed with envy the twenty-year olds, whose beards were thicker though short. Grey was in a group with the other thirty-year olds. His beard was thick, liberally silver and white. He stood out among his people, for only the old men had the same coloring.

His best friend, Badger, bumped up close to him. "Hey old fart!"

Grey grimaced and shoved him back. "Oh, thanks."

"Too bad there's no glory for you." There was real sympathy under the joking tone.

Grey grinned, feeling a mad delight in the breeze. "I'm going."

Badger's voice dropped to a whisper, his eyes wide with astonishment over his thick, brown and black beard. "What? Really?"

Grey lowered his voice and drew his eyebrows down. Merry with smug delight, he still kept his voice sonorous. "It's in the bones."

His friend grimaced and shook himself. "I still don't get how you can figure anything out from cracked bones."

"You're not the wise man's apprentice, are you?" He laughed at Badger's expression of disgust.

Badger shrugged and leaned in close whispering, "Shit. He's kept you out of the fun stuff ever since I can remember. What's different about now?"

They had commiserated many a time over Grey's being held back from the raids the other young men were always getting to commit. He grinned beneath his beard. "It was really in the bones. They said I would fight."

"I'll bet he was angry." Badger's eyes danced with laughter as he risked a surreptitious glance towards the Wise Man.

Grey nodded. "Yes. He even -- " he cut himself off. No one was to know. His master had drummed it into him again and again. No one could know that there were many times when what the bones said was complete nonsense. If the reading turned out wrong, there was always someone's misbehavior to blame it on. Above all they were not to show uncertainty when deciding what the bones meant.

Even though the first reading had said Grey would fight in the coming battle, his teacher did two more readings. Both only produced nonsense, and the wise man had to concede the point. I did not, Grey had insisted, I did not arrange for it to say that. It had been his teacher who cast that first reading, anyway. And so the old man yielded. Grey was already frustrated from years of smothering. There was no way he would tell anyone that the old man had loaded his furs with protective charms. And here he was, about to receive another one.

One day later, they had reached the boundaries of the other village. They fanned out to approach from every side. They were in pairs, one man to make certain the other was not careless. Badger and Grey had found a spot where no one could see them. Badger was laughing softly as he counted the charms in Grey's furs. "Twenty-nine, one for every day between full moons."

"I'm not gonna wear them," Grey said dizzily, for Badger's hands were busy on his manhood. "Just the one he gave to all of us."

"No, wear them. Give me a chance to take 'em off you after the battle." Badger leered playfully.

"You take half," Grey suggested, pulling Badger against him.

Smug and pleased with himself, for he had never been injured on a raid, Badger said happily, "I don't need them. I've got you."

Grey grinned at him. "I'm only the apprentice."

"Shut up and touch me."

They attacked in the middle of the night because the Wise Man had said that was the time blessed by Lightning, the man become a god, the man who could not die. The moon shone full and the night was almost as bright as day. They hacked with spear and axe at the necks of the men they fought, of the women who tried to prevent them from taking the stores. At one house, Grey had just beheaded a man and woman. He was backing up when he felt a tremendous pain tear through him. He forced himself around, caught a brief glimpse of an enraged, bearded face, before he brought his axe up and chopped the man's head off.

A spear. The man had stabbed him through his gut. Must have been tremendously strong. A fog of pain replaced the storm of bloodlust. Slowly, ever so slowly the pain eased and Grey began to feel ice closing around him. He staggered out of the small hut and arms caught him.

He heard Badger's voice, "Grey!" He was shaken gently and someone uttered a colorful curse. Words became a hum as of bees in summer. He felt blackness closing on him. The ice became a roaring heat as his pulse thudded in his ears.

He drifted in and out of pain. He woke in the familiar surroundings of the home he had lived in all his life. A few candles burned and illuminated Badger, sitting half-asleep beside him. He tried to reach out to his friend, but pain flared and he groaned. Badger woke at once. Their eyes met and Grey lifted a hand to touch.

Badger caught it in his own and pushed it down anxiously. "Don't move! You'll start bleeding again."

"Am I dying?" Grey thought he asked, but could not be certain as the darkness and heat closed in on him. He was circling like a hunting hawk. He was swooping (down or up?) through mist into bright, hot sunlight. There was a path to freedom. He could see it leading away and did not know to where. He had not even known before that he was imprisoned but he felt it now. The path, he wanted to run that path to infinity. He reached ahead for it.

And could not go there. He hit a net of lightning that threw him painfully back and realized it contained him. There was no leaving this place for him, not unless the net broke. It was far too large for him to break. He would have to destroy each knot that held it together then... the net would fall into him and he would have... would have....

The transition from utter stillness to feeling was sudden. It took him in violent surprise as his heart hammered to life, his lungs desperately sucked in air and he tried to curl around pain he remembered, but his body no longer felt. Hands gripped his shoulders, voices cried out in astonishment. He opened his eyes to see Badger's stunned face. It took a moment to register the Wise Man, staring at him in equal astonishment. None of them spoke at first. Grey glanced down at his body and realized they had been wrapping him in a burial shroud. Dislodged from the shroud by his sudden awakening were his tools and weapons.

It came back to him, the moment when that spear had been thrust into his body. Feeling dizzy, he reached down, flinching in anticipation of pain, but there was none when he touched his body through the shroud.

Badger broke the stunned silence. "You're Lightning come again!"

The Wise Man reached out a shaking hand that stopped without touching Grey. His voice wavering, he began the ancient chant: "God of our fathers, born of no woman, rising from death, lightning his weapon, glory of our sons -- " he laughed wildly and knelt to Grey. Getting to his feet with some difficulty, the old man hurried through the furs that blocked the entrance to the house. They could hear him shouting the news outside.

Grey turned to Badger. The gaping shock on his friend's face was what he felt. What ever had happened, he did not feel different, he only felt very confused. "I'm not Lightning!" he said desperately.

Badger shook his head. "You were dead."

The legends said that when Lightning had been with them, their tribe ruled the land all around the lakes. All the tales spoke of the glories of that time. Then the gods had taken their leader away in a lightning storm and their fortunes had fallen. His name was lost in the years that passed, but they called him Lightning. All they knew was that he could not die, so the legend persisted that someday he would return. And yet... and yet as more time passed the legend lost its driving force and became simply a wistful memory of a glorious time.

Grey persisted, "I can't be him. I'd know!"

Badger muttered, "Lightning's son. That's it!" He began pulling at the death shroud, forcing it down until he could bare Grey's stomach and run his fingers across the smooth, undamaged skin there. He grinned and gazed with awe into Grey's eyes. "You must be his son."

Through his shock, the idea set in. He was no longer the unwanted child of unknown parents, no longer the weird-looking kid only the Wise Man would have taken in. He was the son of Lightning, glory of his people. He was important to the whole tribe.

Methos stroked Grey's hair back off his forehead. "Is that really what you thought?"

Grey lay on his back with his head in Methos' lap, the dog Goeff draped across his legs. He looked almost as if he was asleep, though just a moment before he had been talking. "It is, but I didn't know it then. Then I thought I was a god."

Of course you did. All the evidence was in you. "And what happened to Badger?"

Grey smiled slightly. "Once he decided that I was still Grey, he was the only person I could have fun with. It used to drive the Wise Man crazy. We were lovers until the day he was killed." The smile vanished and Grey opened his eyes. He shifted his head to gaze up at Methos' face. "He died on the battlefield, taking a blow meant for me. After the battle I found the man who'd killed him among the prisoners. I demanded him for myself. I took revenge." He shuddered and ground his teeth for a long moment. "He was the first... I made him my slave and raped him again and again. We conquered his people, you see. We had a living god, why should we have to do any dirty work? Then one day his mother came to beg for her son. All the rest of her family was dead and she was old. So I gave him to her. He killed himself a day later."

Methos tugged at Grey's bangs. "How do you know?"

"Because she came back. I took her into my household because she was such a tiny, old woman. I don't think she ever knew why her son died. She only lived a few months more. I never even knew her name. Or his."

"Did you care?"

"No." Grey reached behind him and circled his arms around Methos' waist. He twined his fingers together and sighed. "I wish I had."

Methos stroked his lover's forehead and nodded, but said nothing. He thought he detected a pattern to the way Grey was remembering. He sought memories that would justify punishment. His first effort took a memory that he could imply meant he tried to rape Tran. His second effort brought a memory both of punishment for defying his master's wishes and so suffering his first death, and of his first victim who had only been guilty of being on the wrong side. However much Grey had felt at that time he was taking revenge for his lover's murder, three thousand years later he saw it as being callous and cruel. Methos smiled fondly down at the dozing Grey. Which image are you resisting the most, lover? You as the victim, or Tran as the attacker?

Grey replaced the candles with electric lamps and chuckled. How many people get a chance to renovate their quiet place? He had considered lava lamps but, though they amused him, they did not suit his tastes. He knew the building now. He had lived here with Badger for two years. Of course he would have chosen this to hold in his quiet place. Here he had believed himself a god, and been with his first lover, who had always treated him as something special, rather than as an oddity. Then Badger was killed, and the people they had conquered were pressed into building Grey a larger home as befit a god. Naturally in rebuilding the house, he had re-connected with the memories of Badger, and of the first warrior he had broken. He had been cruel, and he had not cared. Now he felt sorrow for the past he could not change.

He sighed and walked outside. Here was a mystery. There had not been a pond in front of the house. So what was one doing here? The plants that hung over the edges in some places, the rocky shores in others, the sand spits. This had taken a long time to construct out of the slime. Studying it, Grey suspected that it was an amalgam of several ponds rather than a particular one. There was too little consistency in the plants and shoreline. So why was it here? He had found no memories to explain it.

He had stayed away from the water ever since he finished rebuilding it. It made him uneasy and he did not know why. Now he walked hesitantly out onto the narrow, rocky beach and crouched at the edge of the water. Hesitantly, he reached out his right hand and briefly dipped his fingertips into the wetness. His fingers tingled pleasantly. It almost felt erotic. Grey felt oddly shy. After another short hesitation he dipped his hand in the water and held there.

Oh, definitely erotic. The deep, warm tingle was strongest in his hand, but spread up his arm. He swayed and pulled his hand out. Okay, so this represented a lover's tryst. Amused and puzzled, he shook his head. Several lover's trysts, unless he was wrong about this pond being an amalgam. But who was the lover? Why did he get nothing, not even a hint of a memory to clue him in? He licked his lips and shivered. Perhaps a more direct application would help.

He decided against going into the water. Unease warred with the desire to know what this represented. Perhaps he had taken a lover who then tried to rape Tran? And Tran had killed the man then punished Grey for his.... He felt dizzy and sat down shakily. No, no that did not feel right. Somehow, though, he knew Tran had a great deal to do with why he could not remember the significance of this pond of... desire. He drew a deep breath and determined to face this. With determination he scooped up a palmful of water and drank it.

Oh, I shouldn't have, was his last coherent thought for a time. Sensation screamed through him. It was like every sensual feeling he had ever experienced remembered at once. He felt filled in a million directions, every nerve ending singing with pleasure. It lifted him, he lifted it, he flew up and out into air, gasping for breath.

The sheet scratched him as he sat up and opened his eyes to look straight into Mariah's. In one movement he scooped that warm, lithe body into his arms. She was grace and silk, heat and life. He could feel her surprise and a leap of desire when he licked her throat. She tasted of salt and something fruity, but he was not certain what. He slid his hands under her shirt to caress the impossible sleekness of her skin. At that she broadcast a shaken negative and stiffened. Confused by her refusal he withdrew, trembling with need.

She touched his face, setting off a stream of enticing sensation, but pushed his head gently until he met another set of eyes. Methos, who managed to look surprised and inviting at the same time. The desire spasmed painfully through Grey and he lashed out to catch his lover and pull Methos towards him. There was no refusal from this quarter as he pinned his lover on the bed and kissed him, thrusting his tongue into that slick, open mouth. He felt movement in the room and opened his eyes, lifting his head to see Mariah vanish through the door with Tran hot on her heels. It was then that the hunger overwhelmed him and he struggled to reach after the small, dark-haired man. He only tangled himself in the sheets and Methos, who chuckled beneath him. When the door closed the compulsion lessened slightly.

A hand touched his cheek, turned the focus of his attention back on the body under him. Oh, this lighting was not the best for the multi-colored Methos. It was too bland, too single spectrum. Grey had seen this man in sunlight, under trees, on horseback. The highlights that would show up in his hair and eyes could occupy a mind for hours. Grey ran his fingers down Methos' neck, then switched to pulling up the soft, thick sweater that graced and sheltered his warm skin.

Methos uttered a sound of soft pleasure and murmured, "What did you remember?"

Grey ignored the question. It made him uneasy for he still remembered nothing, and the tone of amazement let him know Methos did not really expect an answer at that very moment. He pulled the sweater off and settled his body against Methos', nibbling and tasting the slightly salty skin along the shoulder blades. Good, warm, strong. The whipcord strength of this man never ceased to amaze him. He worked to undo Methos' jeans even as he moved down with his lips, to tease sweet nipples to hardness.

Eventually he succeeded in clearing the clothes from his lover and for a time held their bodies together, rocking them slightly. Oh, every centimeter of skin felt alive. It felt so blessed good to just be together like this. He could hear the rapid breaths, feel the swift rise and fall of the chest against his. He felt Methos' legs spread wide and wrap around his hips, pulling him close in a request he recognized from long experience. He reached down under the right side of the mattress and felt for the firm tube he had left there.

Methos gave a surprised mew when he saw it. "Saved that for a special occasion?"

"Yes, for you," Grey whispered back. He kissed Methos, pushing deep into his lover's throat until he felt the body beneath arch up in pleading. Then he slid down until he was positioned between spread thighs. He licked at the inner skin of the left thigh, letting his cheek brush against Methos' cock. With a slow twist of his head he switched to the right side, suckling briefly on the scrotum as he passed. While he lingered on the tender skin, he filled his palm with slick lubricant and began to work it into the tight entry to Methos' body.

And then someone was pounding on the door. Tran's voice shouted, "Grey! Methos! Get dressed! Emergency!"

Methos cursed as Grey started, then withdrew his fingers. Pulling Methos' trembling body into a sitting position, Grey rubbed their noses together in brief apology before launching himself from the bed towards the closet and his clothes. Methos sighed and snatched his own clothes off the floor, shoving his feet into his underwear, and then into his pants. Grey did not bother with underwear and was already dressed in a pair of heavy trousers and an off-white sweater. Methos yanked his shirt on and then pulled his gray sweater on over that, hearing Grey open the door.

"Is it Etienne?!" he heard Grey asking.

Mariah replied, her voice taut with alarm, "Ygienie said something about soldiers, then he was cut off."

Methos heard all-too familiar metallic clicking. He pulled his sweater down so he could see. His delight at the sight of the lovely weapons Grey and Mariah were checking over almost made up for his annoyance and the still-burning fires in his body. Grey turned, a fluid movement that carried anger and intent. "Your choice," he said with deceptive mildness, and gestured into the room beyond with his free hand.

Methos crossed into the room in long smooth strides and moved between Grey and Mariah. There was a hot moment when he felt his lover's hand stroke his buttocks as he passed. Ahead of him, Tran was unpacking some guns from a box that must have come from the open closet. Methos paused and slipped into a slouch, grinning. "Do you keep such stashes all over the ranch?"

"At the main house and in each of the cabins. Always be prepared." He nodded, winked, and held out a nine-millimeter.

The men who stood on watch outside of the Ymeraga home were alert, and seemed fairly militaristic in their stance. Two of them lounged against a jeep. Seeing them through the night vision goggles, Mariah was hard-put to identify their uniforms, which were devoid of markings. They radiated a curious combination of paranoia and satisfaction. In her heart she sought a reason for their presence, and one likelihood formed slowly. Men who had committed atrocities in some army, then become afraid and deserted. They had made their way to the Carpathian Mountains. Hungry for more than field rations and bored, they had stumbled upon the road to the Ymeraga home.

Thank goodness they had not found the ranch. Of course, the ranch had no roads, just trails, and most of its living spaces were underground. The horses were not fenced in because they lived in valleys and the dogs helped keep the herds together. Unless the soldiers found the plane-field, they would never suspect a thing. But they had the Ymeragas, and they had Etienne. She felt a leap of excitement at the prospect of taking on these bandits.

Tran's presence touched her senses, seeping deep into her awareness. She heard Grey behind her identify him for Methos as she lowered the goggles. He slipped out of the underbrush, a moving shadow amongst still ones, and came straight to her. Grey and Methos joined them.

Tran had gone to waylay one of the men and learn what he could. He had left the man alive just in case his death would alert the others, but had made certain he remembered nothing. Tran's fingers wrapped in hers and he whispered, "Bandits. Deserters from Serbia. They were -- " he began, his lips pulled back from his teeth in fury, " -- just going to raid the house and get a little action, but they found some sophisticated surveillance equipment inside, so now they'll rape the women, shoot everyone and torch the house!" Tran was vibrating with rage.

Mariah clenched her fingers around his, shaken with her own pure fury. Monsters! She closed her eyes and sought a quick equilibrium. These were men who felt their power over those they held, and abused it. They were all she hated in the world. How pleasant to remove them. She licked her lips and nodded to herself. "We'll take the ones outside."

His voice low and soft, Methos asked, "From Serbia? What are they doing here?"

Mariah was about to snap at him that now was not the time, but Tran was answering him with impatience. "They fled the bombing in Belgrade and have been trying to find safe haven, but they refuse to work for anyone but other Serbs."

Methos' low chuckle surprised Mariah, and she paused in her anger to consider it. Well, yes, that was rather funny. These soldiers were cowards who ran from a fight but were too egotistical to seek safety. How very... human of them. She almost started laughing, holding the amusement in with a shudder.

Absorbed in his own anger, Tran mistook the meaning and squeezed her hand, letting out his breath in a huff. "I'll call the others out through the door. Hell, we could take them one by one."

Grey took her other hand and said determinedly, "None will live through this night."

A fey mood descended upon them, like the low pressure front of an approaching storm, or the moment when a strange sort of silence settles on a woods before the earthquake becomes strong enough for you to feel.

Methos broke the silence, his voice firm and low, enticing in its vibration. "No. The risk to Etienne and the Ymeragas is too great."

Startled, they turned to look at him. A shadow among shadows, yet he seemed to loom, something about his stance threatening, though not at them. Grey reached out and took Methos' hand, pulling him into their circle.

A sudden surprising sense of things falling into place took Methos. He had been one of four before, and these had been four until one was lost. Once again he could use his skills as a tactician. It had been too long since he had directed an attack of few upon many. He pitched his voice low as they held close to him. "I have a plan."

Mostelovic paced the floor of the main room, watching the pale-haired family in its little huddle. It had seemed so simple. Raid the house for food and other comforts, possibly get the men laid. In the middle of the night, they had smashed their way in through the door and found the parents, three girls, two boys and a baby. One of those boys had been on a cell phone calling someone for help. They had almost killed him, but had only shot him in the shoulder. The boy was no longer bleeding but he looked in shock. When they demanded to know who he had called, he stuttered that he had phoned the neighbors.

Astonished to encounter a cell phone out so far in the mountains of Ukraine, Mostelovic had ordered a search of the house. They found an astonishing array of camera equipment. There was a Macintosh computer and a satellite connection. More interesting was the absence of a household's normal personal possessions. This looked like a family on the move. Well, well. This was no simple farming family, however colorful their clothes. And were not those in this area supposed to be sheep farmers? He had seen no sign of sheep. He tried to question the parents. No one would answer. Soon he would threaten the children. Maybe the two-year old a girl cradled so closely. It was probably a grandchild. Eyeing the way one of the boys hovered near the girl and her baby, he wondered if there might have been a little incest in the family. He felt a burble of amusement. Good. The men would enjoy her before they torched the house. Probably the parents were spies watching these wild lands for their government. Hmm.

Mikel, one of the men on watch outside, burst in the door. "There's a plane!" he shouted.

"What?!" Mostelovic sprang to the door and stepped cautiously outside. He listened and watched the sky. Yes, there was a plane. He could see it faintly against the clouded night sky. Pity they had been forced to abandon their anti-aircraft weaponry. He heard the faint drone of its engines. It was a small plane, then. Someone's private transportation. He scowled. This family with their cellphone, cameras and computer, and someone out there with a private plane. He could have sworn Ukraine was not nearly so capitalist a country. Not out here, anyway.

But if there was a private plane, perhaps somewhere there was a private army. He hid his fear beneath a veneer of ferocity. He would have to hold off on killing these people. He might need them for hostages.

The plane circled over the house three times before flying north. Mostelovic was about to go back inside the house when he thought he heard a faint sound. He and the men beside him swung their guns towards the forest and waited silently. The rustling grew louder. Someone was approaching through the bush, rather clumsily. Mostelovic signaled his men to hold their fire. At last a small form pushed its way through the leaves and branches.

It was a grimy boy, his hair black in the dim light from the windows. He stopped and stared at them, eyes wide and confused. He looked Mongoloid, with the fold of his eyelids, the yellow-brown tint of his skin visible even in this light. He was perhaps nine or ten years old, but when he put his thumb in his mouth and backed unsteadily away from them, Mostelovic snapped out, "Get him!"

The moment a soldier's hand closed on his arm, the boy let out a shriek and tried to run. A simpleton, obviously. The soldier managed to get a firm grip on him, holding the flailing, screaming child around the chest. After a moment the child quieted, sniffling.

Mostelovic rolled his eyes. "Inside." He was curious to see what the farmers' reactions would be.

As soon as they stepped inside and the farmers saw the child, the girls let out shrieks and called him, "Tran!"

The boy began struggling again, whining. Mostelovic watched with amusement the expressions of horrified dismay crossing the younger people's faces. The girl with the baby begged, "Please don't hurt him! What did you do to him?!" Mostelovic nodded to Mikel and the soldier let the boy go. He ran straight into the other children's arms. The mother reached through the crowd and pulled the sniffling child into her lap, murmuring softly to him. The father had an interesting expression on his face. It seemed to combine perplexity, annoyance, and not a little confusion.

Mostelovic wondered. Was this boy an illegitimate child the farmer had tried to lose in the woods? Then his thoughts turned to the plane, and he ordered the father to come with him. He had questions.

Held in warm arms, cuddled against the soft chest of Mother Ymeraga, Tran watched the leader take Volodymyr Ymeraga away. An interesting plan, this. Spook the men with Mariah's airplane and they would be wary of killing their prisoners, who would become potential hostages in their eyes. Tran to go in and force a betrayal, if one did not hand itself to him, to control as many men as it took to spirit the family and Etienne from the house. Methos had looked at him as though in doubt of Tran's ability to do so. Curious, to realize that someone was trying to manipulate him. He had toyed with refusing this plan, if only on the grounds that the Ymeragas home was slated to end in flames. It was unnecessary, and yet when he heard it a wild joy had burned in his heart.

To strike your enemy with such force that their destruction was assured! To have them die knowing they had walked open-eyed into defeat! Methos was nothing if not deadly. To have that cunning mind working for his and his companions' favor! If this works out can I keep you? He hid his smile against Mother's blouse.

"Are you all right?" the woman's gentle voice asked him.

He pulled himself from his thoughts and murmured back, "I'm fine. I'm going to try to get you all safely out of here."

"It doesn't seem possible," she said sadly.

He lifted his head to meet her eyes. So rarely had he ever been close to the adults of this family. Her husband had worked on their farm when very young, but the wife was from far away. Tran did not doubt that part of Volodymyr Ymeraga's discomfort at his presence came from having played together when the man was a child about Tran's apparent age. Probably some subconscious suspicion about a child looking so like a father at that age. He shrugged it off and answered the woman. "The house will be destroyed."

She looked surprised, but Ygienie cut in, "Most everything's in storage, anyway."

The sudden disgruntled aura of the woman startled Tran even as he glanced questioningly at Ygienie. "What?"

"Remember, I told you we're going to move to America. We just don't know where yet. Everything's been packed and stored in Kyev for shipping."

At that moment the mother stiffened, and Tran turned his head with the others to see Volodymyr walking rapidly towards them, his face grim as death. They could hear him grinding his teeth when he reached them. He touched each of his children and gazed helplessly into his wife's eyes. "My answers are not satisfactory."

She opened her lips to answer him when one of the soldiers strode towards them. The man's beard was black, patchy and trimmed short. He had grayish eyes in a somewhat soft face, and a head of short, dark curls. Tran shrank back against the woman's chest. The man's eyes were fixed on Lyudmila, who was holding Etienne. Tran bit his lip hard. The man ordered, "Come on, girl."

She cringed away, clutching the baby close, her face pale. The man lifted his gun with the clear intention of bashing her and the child. Volodymyr surged to his feet and Tran said quickly, his voice a thrum of power, "Take me."

The soldier's eyes fixed on him and he made himself an even smaller ball in Mother Ymeraga's arms. When the man reached for him, Volodymyr shook himself out of the shocked stillness he had settled into and demanded sharply, "Leave the boy alone. Can't you see he's simple?"

The soldier sneered back at him. "I'll take what I want. He's pretty, isn't he?" he added with a leer. "Be even prettier after I'm through with him."

Volodymyr radiated sheer consternation, and Mother Ymeraga wept as the soldier jerked Tran from her arms. He ignored the scattered, "He's just a child! Let him alone!" from the youngsters and concentrated on acting terrified of the soldier.

The soldier carried him toward the stairs, and the leader intercepted them. He pulsed of faint surprise. "You're taking the child?"

The soldier nodded conspiratorially, ignoring Tran's deliberately haphazard struggles. "I figure if we start with this one, they'll break down quick to protect the girls."

There was no real objection the leader could seem to make. He was disgruntled by his man's choice. Yet he made no protest. Good. Easy to kill this man for permitting such behavior.

The soldier carried Tran into one of the upper rooms and tossed him onto the bed. He let his body go limp and the man lay down on top of him, rubbing a hard erection against his hip. Heat and weight. For a moment Tran was lost in fear and gripped the sheets convulsively, but he caught his control back quickly. The surge of adrenaline through his veins made him burn and strengthened his focus. "You want a reward, don't you?" he whispered, his voice thrumming with power.

The man stilled, muscles going slack. The question pealed in and the man answered it. "Yes. I want to be rich and powerful."

Tran lowered his tones to reduce the strain. "The family is rich, isn't it?"

The man's voice was as slurred and slack as his hot body on Tran's. "They must be. They have very modern equipment for a countryside farm house." Faint indignation came through. The man was jealous of such a successful family.

Tran kept the ball rolling. This was easier when one could use the subject's own inclinations. "If you help them, they will reward you."

"Reward me?"

"Yes... and you will not be held liable for crimes. But not if you rape their people." He swallowed, smelling the man's foul breath as it swept over his face.

"But I want him," the man whined. His fingers touched Tran's head and tugged at his hair.

"You'll be rewarded for getting them out of here unharmed." Tran pushed emphasis on the reward, and felt the man cave. It was hard to speak, for he tasted vomit in his throat as the man breathed on him again.

The man climbed off of him and pulled him to his feet. "Look here, boy. I'm not going to hurt you. Nebojsa will take care of you."

Tran shivered and eyed him, deliberately looking dazed. It was almost safe. Not quite, but almost. There was still a strong undercurrent of lust he had encouraged in the man by changing the focus from Lyudmila to himself. He could feel it in the hands that squeezed his shoulders. The man took him into the bathroom and scrubbed his face clean with a rough towel. Then, before Tran thought to react, covered his mouth with one large, heavy hand.

Tran could have broken free, but the effort would have made so much noise and caused so much damage that other soldiers would come and this chance would be lost. Despite his growing fear, he managed to force himself to use only the helpless struggles of a child. The man pinned his legs under an arm and carried him to the bed, making soothing noises. "Now, now, boy. Nebojsa will make you feel good."

He kept his right hand firmly over Tran's mouth and used the other to undo and pull down both of their pants. He squeezed Tran's thigh appreciatively and lay over him, rubbing his cock slowly against Tran's bare leg. Tran closed his eyes and tried to will it away. Better that it was he, who had been through this before, than sweet Lyudmila. He felt the man's free hand move and cover his genitals. The huge fingers were startlingly gentle and surprise caused Tran to jerk, a reaction that pleased the man. "You see, little one? I won't hurt you."

This... he had forgotten this. He had forgotten that a pedophile might sometimes want to force pleasure on the victim. He had also forgotten how terribly good it could feel. As his groin heated and tightened, he let himself moan. The man released his mouth the better to hear him and Tran channeled all his strength into his voice. "Stop!"

Despite the sudden sheer, blinding pain in his head, he felt the man go limp over him. Tran dragged himself out from under the man. He was shaking, his whole body felt limp and weak. Half of it was adrenaline, half of it was the power he had used to force the man against all inclination, even his own. He wobbled into the corner of the room and huddled against the wall, unable to think quite clearly until the pain in his head subsided to a dull ache.

The first thing he wanted was to rape the man himself, then rend him into pieces and stomp on the pieces. Or burn them. Yes, Methos' plan. Tran forced his shaking legs to support him and came back to the man on the bed. He gripped the man's hair tightly and had to restrain himself not to jerk hard. He gazed into the glazed eyes and channeled his power. The name, what was the name this thing had used? Oh, yes. " Nebojsa. You've taken your pleasure. Now return the boy downstairs." He added in a hiss of fury, power building and slow pain throbbing in his temple, "Don't ever cover his mouth again."

A slow blink, and the man sat up and began fastening his pants. Tran quickly fastened his own but did not bother to straighten his clothes. The other soldiers had to think that what had almost happened had truly happened. He growled suddenly to himself and added, " Nebojsa, when the shooting starts outside you must send the family into the cellar. Confirm."

The man blinked and said dully, "When the shooting starts, I must send the family into the cellar."

Tran released the thread of compulsion, but watched the man carefully under the guise of confused terror. Nebojsa shook his head, eyes clearing, then took Tran's arm and pulled him out of the room.

He supposed the expressions on the Ymeraga's faces were worth it when Nebojsa, grinning, threw him amongst them. Volodymyr cupped his chin and he pulled reflexively away, nearly panicking when Mother Ymeraga took him in her arms. He controlled himself only with great effort. He was still shaking. Mother Ymeraga held him gently, yet he could feel her rage, and the guilt that steamed from Volodymyr.

The burly man whispered, "There's nothing I can tell them!"

Tran grappled with his own fear and rage and took control of it. He lifted his eyes to the earthy brown of the mortal adult's and whispered, "Don't blame yourself. Is the tunnel we -- my father and you used to play in. It's still there, isn't it?"

He knew it was. Mariah had checked for him and reported it to be wet but still passable. Volodymyr looked at him in surprise. "Yes, it's there but I boarded it off when Margaret was born." The other children looked up at their father in confusion.

Oh yes, the oldest child. The daughter who was now at university in Geneva. Tran nodded to himself. "If we can get into the cellar, can we get into the tunnel?"

Those expressive shoulders shrugged, then the big man was down, again cupping Tran's chin in his hand, searching his eyes with both sorrow and the guilt which mere words could not turn aside. "We could. We would have to bash through the wall. I have some heavy mallets down there. But these won't -- "

"They will. Just be ready when they send us down."

Volodymyr just barely stopped himself from nodding. He said gently, "Thank you for protecting Lyudmila."

Tran forced a smile. "After all you've done for us, could I do anything else?"

Mariah waited on the other side of the boarded up wall of the tunnel. In the pitch blackness, the air filled with the scent of wet mud and mold, she held onto her patience. This would be interesting. She had considered the wooden planking and decided it probably would not hold up Tran for long. She liked this plan. It had some chancy elements, but no plan could be foolproof. Tran had cinched it by informing Methos about the tunnel.

She held her breath to keep from laughing. Oh, those two were hilarious. There was the week the two of them spent alternating cooking nights. The meals they made with what was available had become increasingly extravagant until she and Grey had begged for more simple fare. They had enjoyed the tasty dishes, but it was getting difficult to compliment everything without egging the two on. They seemed about equal at chess, though Mariah had her suspicions that Methos might be throwing some of the matches. Then there were the dirty limericks. She and Grey had nearly been on the floor laughing during those exchanges.

The dancing had been one of her favorites. Tran and Methos were equally talented in dances more than a century old, but the eldest was well-versed in modern dances. When he demonstrated them, it brought back sweet memories to her of dancing the same ones with Dige.

She wished sometimes to know what Methos was thinking, as she did with other people. Whereas most people presented a multi-layered emotional field, he kept himself under tight control. Only when Mariah listened very carefully did she catch a hint of the shifting thoughts under his emotions. It was never enough to know what he was really feeling or thinking. She could watch and analyze his actions, and knew that he was usually the one to initiate these one-upmanship matches with Tran. Forced to guess his motives, as she had not had to guess anyone's for most of her life, she thought he was trying to form more pleasant common ground between himself and Tran. Either that or he was trying to drive her beloved batty.

It was interesting to adjust their lives to Methos' occasional visits. Would he visit as often when they were in the States? Once the farm was completely settled, and they had found trustworthy hired help, she and Tran intended to take Etienne and travel across that continent. Perhaps Methos and Grey would stay at the farm during those times? Mariah had only been in New York, Seacouver, San Francisco and Vancouver on North America during the last half a century. Tran had spent most of those years here in Ukraine with Grey, who these days had taken to doing vacations with Methos. Or perhaps there was another thought.

Once in the States they could sell the bloodstock. There were several groups dedicated to the preservation of the Caspian breed. They had been exchanging sperm stock with those people for years. Grey would probably be willing. Tran might be more difficult to convince. They had been given charge of a herd by Darius I of Persia, after all. But now... things were different. The Gathering was still a near-potential, and the modern world was changing too quickly. It had been for over four centuries. It was time, she thought. Time to let go of the land and take up wandering, exploring and discovering.

And -- an ache began suddenly in her head. Her heart slammed but she opened up to see what it was. Tran, his emotions fear and anger. She held her breath and listened but did not interrupt. If she did she might distract him. She felt the fear turn to desperate action and the searing pain as he used his power in a concentration and fury that raked him raw. She felt him settle into a numb, throb of pain. She waited, allowing minutes to pass as his pain began to ease.

After a while, he became calmer, and a rakish smugness shown through. She could still feel shudders of anguish under it all. She reached out to him, calm and strong. What happened? she asked.

He turned his attention to her, touching with warmth and sheer admiration. I was almost... but I stopped him. She knew what he meant even though he had not said it, for his thoughts were underlined with remembered revulsion that she recognized.

What does he look like?

Instantly she caught an image of the blurred face that Tran was already trying to dismiss from his mind. Short beard, gray eyes and black curly hair. Tran hesitated and finally said, He'll probably be behind us when we escape.

She smiled. Do you mind if I don't save him for you?

Not at all.

The fury and cunning hunger rang between them. Time to indulge, with an enemy they could see and touch, who was not dead as Shaddam or Domica. Time to play and take revenge.

Down in the tunnel, Mariah could not hear when it started. Tran could, however, and wolfishly laughed in her head. See you soon!

She released the contact and let her fingers swipe gently over the hard bulges of their guns. Each weapon could be snatched with ease. She was ready.

It took only a few moments before hard cracking thumps began echoing through the paneling. Three large hammers, she guessed, and backed away. No need to explain healing injuries from flying bits of wood. It took almost no time at all for them to break through the wall. She felt their bursts of astonished confusion when they saw her, and then Tran shoved his way through the Ymeragas to face them from her side.

They shared, just for an instant, a ringing pleasure between them before turning to the Ymeragas. Mariah urged them, "Run. We'll guard your backs."

"But we can't see!" protested the youngest daughter.

Her father snapped, "Just get going!"

There was a tangle of frustrated excitement from the group before the father and mother overrode them, pushing Lyudmila to the front because she was carrying Etienne. Mariah swallowed her wish to snatch her little boy up for he was crying, but there was no time. She sensed the surge of confused anger and the outraged approach of the soldiers. The family raced into the darkness.

She slipped Tran's guns into his hands and they were ready when the first of the soldiers came running through the hole in the wall. In the instant before she shot him, she knew he was not the man who had attempted to rape Tran. That one was yet to come. Or not, she grinned to herself as they shot the next man coming out.

Cowards though they were, the men were not stupid. With the second one dead, no one rushed the hole in the wall. Mariah and Tran turned and moved as silently as possible down the tunnel. They could still hear the echoing splashes of the family running far ahead of them, still hear Volodymyr urging his children on. Themselves, they did not hurry. They had to be ready to hold off pursuers. Gleams of light reflected off the mud around them, then went dark. Someone had turned off the lights in the cellar. But the gleams began again. Mariah and Tran whirled, noted the two torches shining in the blackness, and fired together. They heard the screams as both torches clattered into the mud.

"Four of twenty-two," Mariah whispered. Tran laughed beside her. They turned and ran down the tunnel.

The explosions were sudden. They felt the ground beneath them shake, and then heard screaming from the cellar behind. Then the air warmed. They bent down and ran faster, hands linked together. Then they were hit and lifted by a wall of hot air. They curled down and fell into warm water, pulled themselves down into the cooler mud and crawled, side by side.

A soft, heavy weight settled suddenly on Mariah's back. Her ears were still ringing. With effort she got her head up above the water. The roof had collapsed. She gasped in a breath of air, but it was hard to breathe with the weight pressing on her. She could feel Tran's body next to her, but he was still, dead or unconscious. She considered taking a swallow of water and letting herself rest beside him, then rejected it. Grey would find them much more quickly if she were conscious. But it was so hard to breathe, and sharp aches were announcing themselves throughout her body.

A voice called in the darkness. "Mariah! Tran!"

She recognized it. That was Volodymyr Ymeraga. She almost answered him when it occurred to her that she should not. If he could not pull her from here, she would die and revive in front of him. Then who would they hire to watch the horses? Oh, yes. They might sell the horses. Vaguely she wondered if the Ymeragas would want them.

It was almost impossible to draw a breath. She coughed weakly and the sound brought Volodymyr to her. Through the haze of her exhaustion and pain she felt him reach under her arms and begin pulling. There were other people with him. Ygienie and the younger brother, Taras, were digging behind her head.

She heard Taras say in horror, "Is it Tran?"

"Dig him out!" Volodymyr commanded. The weight slowly released her and he pulled her from the mud. "It's going to be all right," he told her. She leaned on him gratefully. It was so good to be able to draw a full breath again. She could feel the sparks and tingles inside as her body healed itself. Though how she was going to explain Tran away... there was always the truth if need be. She laughed, then winced as her ribs protested.

The splashing increased and Taras and Ygienie were suddenly frantic in their digging. Able to concentrate, she could feel that Tran had awoken and was struggling under the water. Volodymyr set her against the wet wall and went to help. He pulled her beloved's head above the surface of the water, and before long the three of them were able to bring Tran the rest of the way out of the mud.

Mariah pulled Tran into her arms and held him tightly. Volodymyr's relief permeated the tunnel, but underneath it lay considerable consternation, intense affection, some shame and more than a hint of loyalty. She lifted her head to face him, though the darkness was still complete. "You know?" she asked in wonder.

The consternation roiled and she could feel him hesitate. Then he said sheepishly, "He looks a lot like his father, doesn't he?"

She grinned and let it go. He knew Tran was the same child he had played with and called Dige forty years ago. His sons had no clue, but he knew. Their cover story, that they had hired a surrogate mother while abroad to carry Dige's son, still held with the boys. That was good enough.

Against her chest Tran chuckled. His thoughts and emotions touched hers, whispered with relief, joy and desire. Murmured promises made her blood run. "I think we can walk," she told the Ymeragas. "Is Etienne okay?"

"He's just fine," said Taras as he helped both her and Tran to their feet. "But he wants his momma."

Tran laughed aloud. "I know just how he feels." Innocent though his tone was, his thoughts were anything but.

Mariah was very glad no one could see her blush in the dark.

The flames roared into the night sky, dimming the shining beauty of the stars. Hiding behind a tree to protect his body from the wave of heat, Methos shook his head against the hum in his blood. Another successful raid, and there would be a hot body in the dark afterwards. He shook his head again, harder, but it seemed to do no good and he was not strongly interested in ignoring the lust burning through him. He had an outlet for that lust, and he turned his head to look for his lover. There. Grey had stepped out from behind a tree and was gazing wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the fire. His lips moved and Methos could not read them.

Methos crossed the distance between them and pulled Grey behind the tree out of the blasting heat. His lover looked dazed, eyes fire-blinded. Methos caught his face firmly between his hands and forced Grey to look at him. "What is it?!" he demanded, raising his voice over the roar of the fire.

Grey's lips moved again and he drew a shuddering breath. "The fire. Tran's in the fire!" He pushed against Methos' confining arms and shoved him away, diving out of shelter and running toward the house.

He got no more than a few steps before Methos tackled him and held him down. The heat was too much, searing their lungs and drying their eyes. Methos cold-cocked Grey and dragged the stunned man back into the trees. He pulled him away into the cool bushes and steered them towards the place they had all agreed to meet. Unless something had gone horribly wrong, unless Tran had done something utterly foolish, Grey was wrong.

It took a minute for Grey to recover and steady himself. He scooped his arms around Methos' waist and leaned against a tree. He breathed against Methos' neck, then made a face. "You need a bath."

Methos pressed close, then rubbed himself suggestively against Grey. "So, Tran's not in the fire?"

Grey shook his head and dropped his hands to squeeze Methos' buttocks. "He's somewhere ahead of us. Is there something you want?"

"Me?" Methos pushed his forehead against Grey's. He slid his hand down rapidly to pull open his lover's trousers. He was briefly prevented when his hand collided with Grey's on the way to do the same to his. They tussled playfully until both groins were bare. And then it continued to be a tangle as they feverishly nipped and licked at each other. Grey used his chest to pin Methos against the tree, pulling him up so their groins were aligned, holding him by his buttocks, fingers strong on those muscles, to keep his bare skin away from the bark of the tree as they rubbed against each other.

Methos wrapped one arm over Grey's shoulders to help support his own weight and dug the fingers of his other hand into Grey's buttocks. He abandoned any hint of rational thought and simply let his own fire grow. He opened his mouth and tried to turn the tide on Grey, but was defeated by his own desire to feel more.

Grey's breath was hot in his ear. The voice that spoke was low, hot and fierce. "Need you."

Fast and hard against each other until it was finally over, and they shuddered together. And then they were chuckling, nipping playfully as Grey slowly eased Methos down to stand. "That'll do for now," Methos murmured. "Shall we go see how the others are?"

Grey laughed.

May 25th

Once upon a time there were two riders. One a tall, salt and pepper-haired man on a bay horse with a blazed nose, the other a small Asian boy, also on a bay but this one had a starred forehead. On this hot early summer day the boy followed the man's lead through the forest, ever watching his companion's back.

Tran had decided to enjoy his time with Grey as long as he could. Look at the easy way he rides. He is so relaxed. I haven't seen him like this since before Meerschweine. He admired the wide expanse of Grey's shoulders. Long body, thickly muscled thighs gripping the horse. Don't go there, fool, he told himself. I wish... I wish.... Think of something else.

He cleared his throat and spoke calmly as he could. "Do you know what Mariah wants to do?"

Grey reined in his horse and soon they rode side by side. "What does she want to do?"

"She wants to sell the farm to the Ymeragas."

Grey lifted his head and gazed at him in surprise. "Really?"


Grey made a soft sound of interest and continued forward. "Could you do that? Let go of something you've taken responsibility for for so long?"

Tran shivered and drew a shaken breath. Not yet, please. He swallowed and forced himself to speak. "I don't know."

Grey reached out a hand and gripped Tran's shoulder. "We used to leave for years at a time."

"I remember." Mariah and Dige usually had left together. Sometimes they would return separately as one or the other had found a mortal to wed and stay with for a few decades. When Grey got the wander-bug, sometimes Tran went with him. Then there were the times when the four of them left together to challenge another Immortal. It had been so easy to hire people to care for the horses. They only needed to do so about four times a century. Tran and Mariah would determine who could be trusted, and Tran would lay a compulsion to make sure the mortals held the animals safely. Now the world was too active. It was harder to find help who might not get suspicious. Too much damn trouble. Way too much. He uttered a long sigh.

"I love the horses, you know that," Grey said suddenly. "But there are plenty of people to keep the breed alive, now. Darius would forgive us if we stopped watching over them personally. Why don't you and Mariah take Etienne and go touring?"

Startled himself, Tran raised his head to meet Grey's twinkling eyes. "Touring?!"

"Yeah, touring." He was watching Tran and grinning slyly. Mischief radiated from him and Tran tasted it greedily. How much longer would he have of feeling warmth from Grey? But his old friend continued speaking, saying teasingly, "You have to get out more."

"I like a controlled environment." There were so many temptations out there, like the boys and later the criminals he and Jaouen had killed in Paris, like Nebojsa and the other men here. Reasons to kill mortals for simple mistaken judgements. They changed so quickly, and died so easily. And... his thoughts and eyes turned to Grey. Friends changed and could die.

"You can't control every situation. Let go and enjoy life. Mariah..." Grey trailed off.

Tran abruptly felt drained, but not really surprised. "Did she say anything to you?"

They had reached the pond and Grey dismounted, saying, "No." He grinned up at Tran and wiggled his finger teasingly. Tran sighed and dismounted. Grey knelt in front of him and laid his hands on Tran's shoulders. "Let her show you the world. She wants to share her life with you."

"S'funny, isn't it?" Tran said quietly. So funny how though they had known each other for a thousand years, they had so much yet to discover. He looked around. The pond had a pebbly shore. All around were yellow, blue, white and orange flowers. The water became muggy farther out towards the center of the pond. "What are we doing here?"

"We are going swimming," Grey replied cheerfully, and then began stripping.

Well. Tran blinked and shook himself. Swimming I can do, he thought, and began removing his own clothes.

The pond was just wonderful. In the shallows and at the surface it was sun-warmed, but their lower legs and feet always dangled in the cool, darker waters below them. Dragonfly larvae and water-boatmen hurried away from them as they broke the water like giant beavers. They raced each other across the pond. Grey's strength and power may have given him the edge, but Tran was a very good swimmer. Mariah had taught him some of the techniques developed in the last centuries, and he managed to keep abreast of his friend. The buoyancy of the water added to the buoyancy of their spirits, and both were laughing.

Grey stood in the shallows and shook himself like a dog, panting. "You -- " he pointed at Tran " -- should try out for the Olympics."

"Yes, but what would they classify me as? There's a leech after you."

Grey hopped out of the water and they both snickered, watching the long, brown strip of flesh hide itself among the rocks under the water. Then Grey turned and looked down at Tran, eyes twinkling. "Follow me." He ran back into the water and swam out towards the center of the pond. Tran ran in after him, enjoying the long, lean muscles and broad shoulders and everything else physical about his old friend.

Grey stopped about the middle of the pond and waited for him. Tran caught up with him and treaded water. "What are you waiting for?"

"I can stand here," Grey replied. Then he held out his hand, palm up, and said, "Stay here with me."

"I can't stand there," Tran pointed out with exasperation.

"I know, so you'll just have to rely on me, won't you."

And Tran was suddenly afraid. He could not quite think why he was frightened, but there was Grey, waiting for him. He swallowed and took Grey's hand, letting himself be drawn close. Those strong arms went around his back in a loose hold. He was all too conscious of Grey's immense strength, and how helpless he was if his friend should choose to use it against him. But they simply stayed there, the sun baking his shoulders and the back of his head, while cooler currents whirled across his skin.

Grey was calm and easy. At the same time Tran could feel curiosity and shyness pulsing. His old friend wanted something, he could tell. He lifted his head. "What is it?" he asked.

Grey's eyes twinkled and a mischievous smile touched his lips. "I was just wondering what it would be like to kiss you."

Er. Well, that was unexpected. Kissing was a fashion that had developed in recent centuries. The first time he had ever been kissed it had been an astonishing, naked experience. He was swept up for a moment in memories of Anne, who had seduced him two years after he rescued her from a brothel. Grey did not know about Anne, he reminded himself. No one knew about her. He shivered and forced his thoughts to the present. "All right," he said, shrugging as calmly as possible.

Grey's warm hand cupped his cheek, those strong fingers curled around the back of his head. And the lips that touched his were just as warm and caressing. Wasn't there a modern fashion called French-kissing? He opened his mouth, but Grey did not take him up in the way he expected. Nibbling along the line of his lips, making him alive. This touching seemed to take all of Tran's strength and lodge it in his heart, whose beat could suddenly be felt in his thighs and chest. He sank back in the water, feeling it cool around the back of his head. He could feel the intensity of Grey's affection, sensual desire and admiration for him.

It took him back to himself. No. You can't admire me. He struggled to pull away and found immediate freedom, though a hand stayed under his elbow. An ache of pain from temple to temple and he opened his eyes, having no idea when he had closed them so tight. The sunlight was fierce and he closed them again.

Grey asked softly, "Are you all right?"

"Yes...." Or perhaps not. He rubbed at his temples with his fingers, still feeling the heat and strength of Grey's hand keeping him from sinking under the water. Here he was, accepting that support as his right. What had he ever done to deserve it? He pulled back, treading water and forcing himself to look into Grey's eyes. Smoke and clouds. He had flown away in those eyes, his moods dependent upon the life he could see there, the life he saw there now. It was not he who had been responsible for revitalizing Grey. He swallowed and looked down at his wrinkled fingers in the water. "You don't owe me anything."

Grey's laughter was soft and rumbled into his ears. "On the contrary, I owe you everything."

"No you don't," Tran answered, his heart heavy in his chest. He could sink beneath the water and drown if only... if only. "I let you believe that, but it's a lie. I didn't save you from yourself. I only wanted a slave. An adult Immortal man as a slave."

He cautiously looked up and met an expression that confused him. Grey looked amused and compassionate, a small smile coiling the edge of his mouth, his eyes light and warm. He blinked and regarded Tran steadily for a moment and then said so softly, "You were on fire."

Tran forgot to kick in his shock. He slid beneath the water and Grey grabbed him, pulled him up and close so that they could look into each other's eyes. Once again Grey's arm supported him. He fought down a sudden panic and held still.

Grey kept the eye contact and something else; the stream of his conscious confidence wrapped reassuringly through Tran's thoughts. The world faded around him as Grey took over, sharing the memory that had resurfaced full and clear.

So many things he did not understand about his master. Tran was capable of great brutality, yet never had acted without cause. So what was the cause of the violent anger tonight? Why had Tran suddenly turned and mercilessly slaughtered those men? Grey had not wanted to leave his master, but had been forced to by the power of command. His thoughts were broken by a distant scream. He froze, lifting his head and listening intently. Another scream and he realized it came from the direction of the camp. It was a child's scream of agony. The dogs were whining beside him and he bolted, as fast as he could run, towards the camp. Could there have been a survivor, come to take revenge and somehow gotten to Tran? He cursed himself for obeying and leaving his obviously distraught master alone.

By the time he reached the camp there were no more screams. He flinched at the scent of burnt meat in the air. The fire! Tran was in the fire, his body black and oozing boiled blood. Without waiting to think Grey threw himself into the fire, ignoring how his clothes ignited in his desperation to pull Tran out. He set the twisted form on his own bedding and threw his burning clothes off, feeling his body beginning to heal the burns he had sustained. If he had not known for sure, could not see the beginnings of healing energy flickering over the small form, he would not have recognized Tran. Was it possible for the magic of Immortality to fully heal such terrible wounding? He padded at the oozing skin. He could almost feel the agony Tran must be in. It was like a terrible ache in the back of his head. He ignored his pain and tried to concentrate on somehow soothing his master's.

But the pain grew until it swallowed everything around him and he was trapped in a dark place, his body paralyzed and vitals being torn from him. The agony was punishing and cruel. Somehow he could sense his master, furious with him, loathing him. He had done something so terrible that Tran was destroying him. At last understanding the source of his pain, he tried to fight back and failed to touch anything. His strength was gone. He was torn apart and then there was no he, only an unending agony.

Tran fell from memory and sobbed against Grey's shoulder. He did not struggle against the arms that held him. Who was he to fight anything Grey wanted? Yet still he was surrounded by that warmth, the affection and trust of this tall, beloved friend. He struggled to speak and managed at last, "How can you love me?"

"When we see our own faults, we judge ourselves harshly," Grey said, tightening his arms around Tran. "It wasn't your fault."

Tran dug his fingers into Grey's shoulders and pulled his head back to blink fiercely through his tears. "It was mine! You were only trying to help me and I -- "

Grey cut him off with a finger on his lips. "When did you know it was me?"

Stillness. In him, around him. Stopping the tears. He had to sniff to clear his nose. "What?"

Grey pressed their foreheads together and met Tran's bewilderment gravely. "You were in agony. Your fingers were melded together, your eyeballs had burst and cooked. Your Immortality was healing you, preventing you from going into shock. You could not have known it was me."

"It doesn't help," Tran whispered back. He had never let that truth lessen the impact of what he had done. Facts could not dissipate guilt. Grey pushed against his forehead and met his eyes demandingly. He swallowed again through the pain in his throat. "I was going to take your head, then I saw the chain and... and I realized where I was. Who you were. What I had done."

Grey nodded against him, tightening his arm again, mind open and loving. "I knew you had done something to me, but I couldn't remember it. I only knew that I was desperately afraid of angering you. And you took care of me. You forced me to handle weapons, you taught me about everything. You never got angry with me. I watched for it. I wanted to come to you when you screamed in the night, but you had forbidden me so strongly. Eventually I realized that you would never hurt me, and I was so grateful, I kept trying to do everything you wanted."

"I didn't deserve it."

"You did. You do. You had to force me to admit that I wanted things, too. Did you think I'd forgotten?"

Blurred faces hovered in his mind's eye. Handsome faces, men Grey had fancied when they traded in towns. Tran, sensitive to any sign of independent want in his slave, had acted as a go-between to arrange covert meetings. It had always amazed him how, on some instinct, Grey seemed to only desire those who were willing.

Grey suddenly cupped his chin and kissed him again. It was a long, slow kiss that left Tran limp when Grey finally released him, and yet it was not so sexual as the earlier one had been. Grey rubbed noses with him. "And I remember now why I've always liked sex in water," he said, low and teasing. Then more firmly he added, "I would like to make love to you as your equal. Someday, when you're ready. Just come to me."

Tran blinked. He could not speak, only stare into Grey's eyes in wonder. When he was ready. Yes, someday he would be ready. Not today, when the pain was so fresh again. But someday. He chuckled and pressed his forehead against Grey's shoulder. "I'd like that," he whispered. "But now I'm turning into a prune."

And Grey laughed with him, spirit a dancing light between them.

Grey slid his arms around Methos' chest and murmured, "If this were even a hundred years ago, we would take the horses to the Mediterranean Sea, hire ships to the Atlantic Ocean and then to the Colonies."

Methos leaned back against his lover, basking in the heat he felt. He shivered as Grey began exploring his body, feeling warm breath on his neck. He swallowed and held his breath for a while as the powerful hands slid between his thighs and pressed up on either side, pushing his jeans against his cock. It occurred to him with a vague sort of relief that he could help. He sometimes wished to be needed, it gave so much more security than simply being wanted. He whispered, "If you can get them to the sea, I can arrange the ships."

Grey stopped moving, then he set both hands over Methos' cock and pressed with the ball of his hands before rolling down to the tips of his fingers and back, again and again. "Really?" he asked, his voice low and throbbing in Methos' ear.

Methos' legs lost strength, but Grey was holding him up, leading him toward the bed. He managed, "Are we taking up where we left off?" before Grey kicked his legs out from under him and firmly placed him on his back.

"It's either that or concentrating on how to get the horses through Romania and Bulgaria. Actually, can you arrange transportation from the Black Sea?"

"Yes, I can."

Grey kissed him, then, holding him tight and secure. "Good. And you get to tell me how you can manage all this. Later." And with a laugh, Grey proceeded to make it much later.

telling the dream
>Dvorah Simon
        don't tell the dream: the dream is gone.
        rather, step with that same liquidity
        into wonder
        pebbles are uncut diamonds and
        the monster is vanquished with a
        garden hose
        and the burning eyes and blood-lit blade
        are yours
        and the message that will bring the war to a close
        is yours
        and the rooms you didn't think were there,
        in a house you didn't know you owned,
        and that first unbelievable lift into air
        and the lover whose face is just beyond
        though your flesh burns and struggles for release,
        is yours
        every prayer, every inch, every move
        yours from the beginning until now
        to shape and to receive
        in darkness turned to color and to form:
        wake to the dream;
        not from it.