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Nolo Contendere

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"It's for charity," Amanda said, eyes wide and guileless.

"And that should have me leaping to buy a ticket, because?" Methos countered.

Amanda thought about that. "The food and the wines are of the highest quality?" She spread her hands and lifted her shoulders in an exaggerated shrug. "Besides, Marcus and his museum need the money."

"Marcus is a boring old fart."

"He's three millennia younger than you."

"So? MacLeod is a boring old fart at a third of his age."

"He is not! He's criminally sexy and adorable--"

"Spare me. I suppose you're dragging him along to this shindig?"

"Well, of course!" She tucked a folded card down the front of his Aran sweater before he could slap her hand away. "There. Now you don't even have to shell out for a ticket. Black and white, Methos, that's the theme. Nine o'clock at the Chateau Des Lauriers. Tonight." And she swept out of Le Blues bar with grace and speed.

"Good food, hm?" Dawson drawled, polishing a dry and already shining patch of mahogany bartop. "Good wine?"

Methos glared at him and fished the ticket out of his clothing. On one side was the reason for the gala event: the museum had been gifted with a small 18th Century chateau built just outside Paris during Bonaparte's heyday. But the place had been run-down and now funds were needed to continue with the restoration. On the other side were the details of the ball. He read its brief announcement and sighed. "Yes, but look at the dress code. 'Formal'. Never mind the hackneyed theme, I don't own a dinner jacket." Admittedly, few hours were enough to buy one, but it was a good excuse.

"I do." Dawson grinned. "I haven't worn it for years. It's a touch too snug across my shoulders and chest these days, so it should fit you okay. All you need are black pants, white shirt and a black tie."

"I'll look like a bloody penguin," Methos said, something of a growl in his voice. He wasn't interested in going, but on the one hand, the opportunity to indulge in fine food and wine, at Amanda's expense, proved very tempting. On the other hand, why did she want him along? What was she up to? Probably setting up a contest between him and MacLeod. It was something she did every now and then: flirted with the two of them, trying to play one against the other. It hadn't worked before, and it sure as hell wouldn't work now. But on the third hand, maybe it was time she got pulled up short. It was indecent the way she could twist MacLeod round her fingers most of the time....

A smile lifted the corners of his mouth: the sly, wicked smile he didn’t often show to the world.

"Thanks, Joe. I'll take you up on that offer."

###

Methos had the loaned jacket. Back at his apartment he also had a pair of nicely tailored black pants and a black tie that would do at a pinch. The shirt he would have to buy, and he knew exactly what he wanted. Something rich, something decadent and very black. Time was limited, so he gritted his teeth and went designer-label-hunting.

He was lucky enough to find exactly what he wanted in the first fashion-house. He winced at the price, but paid up. The shirt, of that heavy silk that draped enticingly over muscle, invited touch the same way as the pelt of a black panther. He bought a tie of a heavy slubbed silk in the same place. Its texture highlighted the sleekness of the shirt.

Of course, he then had to purchase the onyx tiepin and cufflinks, and swore to himself the overall price would be worth it to put Amanda’s nose out of joint. If she was planning one of her usual forays, it would be a classic case of the biter being bitten on her delicious bum, and to the victor the spoils. If she wasn’t, he’d just spent a small fortune for a free meal.

###

So it was that at just gone ten o'clock, one Adam Pierson strolled into the Chateau Des Lauriers, looking as elegant and dangerous as a polished obsidian blade. He snagged a wineglass from a passing waiter and surveyed the potential battlefield. The ballroom had been restored to its Napoleonic glory, and was crowded with a scintillating shimmer of wealth and haut couture, made borderline surreal by the black and white dress code.

There was also, inevitably, the unmistakable edge of Presence and he searched the crowd until he found its source: Marcus Constantine, standing on the dais at the far end of the room. Methos moved through the throng, a lean predator well aware of the appreciative glances as he passed, and joined his fellow Immortal.

"Constantine," he said, nodding a noncommittal greeting.

"Pierson." The acknowledgement was smoothly bland. "On your own this fine evening?"

"Temporarily." Methos took a sip of his wine and changed the subject. "There're a few million euros here tonight. Looks as if this new museum of yours will do nicely out of it."

"It needs to," Constantine said morosely. "The bloody place has to be renovated from cellars to roof. Especially the roof. We've finished with the cellars and this floor, but the second floor has only half a dozen rooms that are liveable in. The top floor, which should be my living quarters and the offices, are completely unusable."

"Well, these old chateaux, you know...." He shrugged.

"But the architecture is beautiful, and the grounds...." Methos tuned him out. There was a stir at the entrance, and he didn't need the touch of Presence to know who'd arrived. The half a meter of extra height gave him a good view of the newcomers.

Amanda was in black--a long satin and velvet sheath slit to mid-thigh to show black silk stockings and strappy shoes. Victorian jet graced her throat, wrists and ears. Her eyelids, nails and lips were painted gloss ebony, and her short spiked hair shone like a blackbird's wing. She looked fantastic. There wasn't a woman present who came close to matching her striking beauty. And she knew how to make an entrance. Methos raised his glass in silent tribute, but his glance didn’t linger.

Duncan MacLeod was standing beside her, and the man was incandescent. He wore white, from the shoes on his feet to--Methos saw as the dark head turned to greet a friend--the white leather clasp that held his ponytail. The picture they made would stop traffic, and virtually every eye in the place was on them.

"...and to raise more funds," Constantine continued, nudging Methos' arm, "I'm going to have the Swiss Guard from the Vatican dancing the Can-Can--"

"Good idea," Methos said absently.

Then he took a deep breath, drained his glass and sauntered across the dance floor to meet the newcomers.

"Well, look what the cat dragged in," he drawled, grinning with all his teeth and noting that MacLeod's shirt and tie were a match for his; pure white to his rich black. That gave him an odd feeling in his stomach. No, it was just that he was ready for that free meal. "Vampirella and Frankenstein's Bridegroom. Or are you about to audition for a Fred Astaire remake?"

"Would you believe a washing powder advert?" MacLeod chuckled.

"I think he looks gorgeous," Amanda cut in. She slipped her arm through MacLeod's and fluttered her eyelashes at Methos. "Don't you?" she added with just a hint of smugness.

"Oh yes," Methos agreed cheerfully. "A gourmet's delight, if very, uh, virginal." Though he admitted to himself that MacLeod didn't look particularly virginal. He looked exotic, a walking invitation to indulge in sins of the erotic kind. But more than that, he was alive in a way that no one else could match. "Anyone of a nervous disposition would be afraid to touch in case they left grubby finger marks."

MacLeod snorted. "Yeah, right," he said. "Not my choice. But I didn't expect to see you here," he went on, and by his tone, he was happy to be surprised.

"A friend gave me a ticket," Methos said, not glancing at Amanda. "Marcus is over there. Come and be polite and say hello to the boring old--"

"Adam," Amanda purred, "you're looking rather dashing tonight. Are you with someone?" She tightened her grip on MacLeod and began to steer him away from Methos.

"Not yet," he said, his smile skating the edge of malicious. "But I'm working on it."

Her eyes became sultry, inviting, and she blew him a laughing kiss. "Mmm, I wish you luck, then. Maybe I'll dance with you later."

"Luck will have nothing to do with it," he said, and raised her hand to his lips to brush a kiss over her knuckles. Then he met the peat-dark gaze of MacLeod, and his smile widened slightly. "I'll look forward to it," he said, and walked away.

###

Throughout the meal and the dancing afterwards, Methos relaxed and enjoyed himself. He flirted gently with various ladies, drifted through the press of expensive and fragrant bodies, chatted with Constantine and frequently met his friends in passing. Amanda's teasing of them both became more overt as the evening wore on into the early hours, but Methos just smiled his sleepy, narrow-eyed smile and bided his time. MacLeod, as usual, showed no sign of resenting her increasingly blatant attentions. Others, though, found the byplay intriguing.

"Amanda's on form tonight," Constantine observed. "For Duncan's benefit or yours?"

"Probably both," Methos said. "But at the moment, MacLeod is the lucky recipient."

"Well, they make a striking couple, to put it mildly."

Methos chucked. "Is that doubt or envy in your voice?" he asked. "They're not exactly joined at the hip. MacLeod's not that stupid. He'd have a hard time keeping her out of his bank accounts, for one. Besides, they'd end up killing each other if they spent too much time in each other's company."

"And where do you fit into their ménage de deux? Or is it trois?" There was a lurking amusement in the man's eyes that Methos had a sneaking feeling was aimed partly at him.

"Deux, definitely." Methos chuckled again. "MacLeod is boringly monogamous when he commits. Amanda doesn't know the meaning of the word."

Constantine nodded. "True. Nor can I see her changing her habits. Why do I get the feeling she's selecting future targets?"

"Don't worry. MacLeod won't let her fleece anyone on your premises." But Constantine didn't seem to find that reassuring, and Methos removed himself before his devil tempted him to launch into a full scale wind-up. Besides, he wanted to follow his quarry without distractions.

Amanda and MacLeod didn't stay together all the time. They danced with other partners, and Methos watched, enjoying their grace. Then, while MacLeod was occupied in what looked to be an intense discussion with Constantine and a couple of mid-level politicians, Amanda abandoned her current dance-partner and cornered Methos by the potted palms, her eyes alight with glee. "I wondered how much needling it would take for you to join the game," she said.

Involuntarily, Methos' eyes were drawn to the tall figure. A knight in modern garb rather than a surcoat of white samite; not a hair out of place, not a wrinkle or crease on the linen-and-silk suit. As if he felt the weight of Methos' gaze, his head turned, and the magnetism of his smile reached clear across the crowded ballroom.

There came a sea-change to Methos' soul. Suddenly he needed a conclusion to that other contest he and MacLeod had been quietly indulging in for years now. "There are games and games," he said, turning back to Amanda. "And I have a habit of ignoring the rules. Has it occurred to you that if I play," he went on, mildly astonished to hear what was coming out of his mouth, "I'll play for keeps and the winner takes all?"

Her dark eyes narrowed. "That's a challenge," she announced.

"Only if you want to make it one. This is no game, Amanda. You, he loves, but he's already half in love with me." An uncomfortable shiver ran down his spine. That was A Truth, but--

"In your dreams!" She snorted in mock indignation. "This is Duncan we're talking about!" She stared at him, frowning. "You're serious," she whispered. "No! You can't! I know you, remember? He's not the kind of lover you can just seduce and walk away from!"

"Isn't he? You do it to him all the time."

"I do not! Well, okay, but that's different!"

"Exactly. You, he merely loves."

"Adam--Methos." She laid her hand on his arm, her lovely face serious. "Don't do this to him. His heart is the only vulnerability he has."

He didn’t answer, and after a moment Amanda stood away from him. "I will stop you," she said, and she stalked away.

She returned to MacLeod's side, hooked a proprietorial arm through his, and leaned against his side. But Methos knew she watched him from the corner of her eye.

He gave her a mocking salute, and strolled in their direction.

Methos stopped in his tracks.

What the hell was he doing? Yes, he wanted Duncan MacLeod, had for a long time, but this was no way to go about getting him. All he’d planned was a casually torrid and brief affair, something that would finally scratch the itch that had been under his skin ever since MacLeod had walked into his life. But MacLeod--what would he want? His own words came back to mock him, 'He's already half in love with me.’ Then he realised something and it wasn’t a cartoon bulb lighting up in his head: it was a mega watt sunburst.

He, Methos, who after more than five millennia should have had enough survival instincts to avoid it, was more than half in love with Duncan bloody MacLeod of the bloody Clan MacLeod. The knowledge hit with all the subtlety of a mountain falling on him.

"Oh, bugger...." Something painful twisted inside him and he had to leave right that minute or he'd end up trapped. Or worse. He'd been blind--stupid--but it wasn't too late to break free, to run while he still could. Methos tore his gaze away from the man and started for the door.

Too late. MacLeod had left Amanda and Constantine and was heading towards him like a frigate cutting through a fleet of rowboats. Methos lengthened his stride but they met in the doorway, MacLeod's hand on his arm.

"What's wrong?" MacLeod asked, concern in his voice. "You looked--there're no other Immortals here but the four of us. Did Marcus Challenge you?"

"No, of course not. I just remembered something. MacLeod, I have to go."

"Not yet," MacLeod said grimly. "You looked as if someone had stuck a knife in your gut. Talk to me. Let me help."

"Don't be ridiculous!" Methos snapped. "Amanda's looking for you."

"We can't discuss it here. Come on, we'll use Marcus' rooms. He won't mind and we can get this sorted out."

"MacLeod." Methos dug in his heels. "What the hell is up with you? Listen to me. Nothing. Is. Wrong. Understand?" But MacLeod was a Juggernaut and he found himself carried along by the grip on his elbow.

"Then what did you suddenly remember that had you looking like you'd been gralloched?"

"None of your business."

"I'm making it my business." They reached the foot of the great curving staircase, and MacLeod seemed hell-bent on going up it. Methos twisted free with a curse.

"Who elected you God?" he blazed.

"No one. You and Amanda have been duelling all evening and I'm the focus of it." Methos stared at him, feeling as if the ground had abruptly disappeared from under his feet. Admittedly, they hadn't been that subtle about it, but he would have sworn MacLeod hadn't noticed a thing. "Suddenly you're not playing anymore. What went wrong?"

"I--got tired of the game," he managed, then realised they were halfway up the staircase and MacLeod still had his arm in a light clasp. They rarely touched, for all that MacLeod was a physical, demonstrative man. Methos could only remember holding him in his arms once, when Joe Dawson had shot him. Even dead, the supple weight had seared into Methos' awareness. Now that casual-seeming pressure on his skin branded him to the soul. "Shit!"

"I'm not an idiot, Methos," MacLeod said quietly. "It's time we talked." There was a rough-silk edge to his voice that performed a glissade over Methos' nerve-ends and hotwired his libido. They were standing close, inches separated them and it would be so easy just to sway close and kiss that sensual sinful mouth-- Methos took a step back, refused to acknowledge the uncomfortable tightness of his pants.

"What about?" he demanded, and heard the same huskiness in his own voice.

"Come with me," MacLeod said, a promise in his voice and eyes, "and find out. If you want to." He let go of Methos' arm and carried on up the wide sweep of stairs, not looking back.

Frozen in place, Methos forgot to breathe. He was being given options. He could walk away and they'd never mention this moment again, never tease or flirt, never play with the fire that smouldered between them and could so easily explode into life. Or follow and never be alone again. Never be cold, never be empty.

Until one of them lost their head. And that simple fact was one of the main reasons why he never got involved with Immortals. Well, almost never. And when he had let himself become entangled with an Immortal lover, there'd always been a major factor missing: trust. He had a sickening feeling it would not be missing with MacLeod.

Maybe he'd better be sure MacLeod's so-decorative head stayed where nature intended it. A tough job, but someone had to do it. It would cost him his treasured anonymity--Adam Pierson, neo-Immortal and relatively harmless would not be expected to stand as an equal at the great MacLeod's side. And then there was that primeval instinct deep in his gut telling him that was exactly where he should be. As if all his long life had been leading up to this one moment.

Who better than him to guard MacLeod's back? He was the oldest Immortal, the ultimate survivor, and he could make sure MacLeod survived. At his side. In his arms. In his bed. Safe. Not an itch to be scratched, but an addiction that would last an Immortal's lifetime.

So Methos followed, his footsteps silent on the thick carpet. He felt a little giddy, breathless, as if the air up here was rarefied, but he didn’t hesitate. Not any more.

Ahead of them the corridor was roped off with a large 'Privé - N'Entrez Pas' sign swinging from the barrier. MacLeod stepped over it and walked on, clearly knowing where he was going, then turned left into another passageway, and left again to open a door and enter a room. He didn’t reach for the light switch.

The gardens were illuminated, and the golden glow of the many small lanterns shone through the tall windows, giving light enough for Methos to see the general layout. They were in a living room by the look of it and like the ground floor, it was mostly decorated in the Empire style concurrent with the chateau. Some anachronistic armchairs and a long couch faced a beautifully moulded fireplace, with an in-period screen in front of the hearth and a large gilt-edged mirror above. The room sang of spacious comfort: Constantine was clearly not one to stint himself when the opportunity arose.

MacLeod closed the door behind him and Methos heard the snick of a key being turned. He turned quickly to find that MacLeod hadn't moved, was leaning back against the door with a wary expression drawing down his brows.

"You got tired of the game between you and Amanda, you said." MacLeod's hands were in the pockets of his jacket, but the way his gaze roamed over Methos' features was as tangible as a caress. "It wasn't boredom I saw."

Methos shrugged. "The games were--inappropriate," he answered. "The ones between Amanda and me, and you and me."

MacLeod nodded. "So what's the next step?" There was a faint sheen of sweat above his upper lip, and Methos fought down the urge to seek the salt-taste with his tongue. "Your choice."

"Why mine?" Methos asked, intrigued and stalling for time. No matter that one instinct was telling him to stay, there was another just as strong demanding he leave. Now.

And then MacLeod was explaining it to him in simple, uncomplicated terms and it was far too late. Methos didn't know whether he wanted to yodel his delight like an idiot, or--

"Because you have the most to lose," MacLeod said, motionless and luminescent in the dimness. "Let me put it this way. I love you. I'm in love with you, and I want to be part of your life. I want to go to bed with you at night and wake up beside you in the morning. I want to be able to watch you walk away and know that no matter how long we're apart, I'll be the one you'll come home to. I want to know that you and I can share all of our lives, the good and the bad, and guard each other's backs in the crises, keep each other safe and sane."

Every word sank into Methos' soul with a bitter-sweet aptness and one of his instincts fell silent. Yet there were other words that needed to be said. "But in the end," he whispered, "there can be only one...."

"Then it won't be me. So, it's your choice," MacLeod took his hands out of his pockets and held out an old-fashioned key. "You can go or stay, and if you do go, it won't alter a thing between us. I'm your friend first and foremost. Nothing will change that."

"Don't be so quick to say it. Kronos. Remember him?"

"Couldn't forget him if I wanted to. Or Caspian." MacLeod's smile was wry. "Two sets of three thousand year old quickenings in less than an hour take a lot of settling. Have you decided yet?"

"Oh, yes." Methos reached out slowly, took the key from him and watched the dark eyes flinch. That was the only sign MacLeod gave that he was hurt. Methos laughed and threw the key into the nearest chair. "I want what you want," he said, and one swift step took him into the arms that opened for him.

MacLeod's mouth tasted of chocolate and brandy, and Methos' awareness narrowed down to the scent and essence and power of the man he held in his embrace. The kiss was slow, luxuriating. Their mouths moved gently on each other, tongues slipped softly over lips to delve into moist heat, and the rush of sensation was both intoxicating and exhilarating. And right. So bloody right that Methos could not understand why it had taken them so long to find this flawlessness. There was no contest for dominance between them, commitment was offered and accepted on a shared inhalation, unstinted and without regret. There was only the rising ardor that lifted them out of the mundane and into another place entirely.

He buried his fingers in MacLeod's hair, removed the clasp and filled his hands with the heavy silk. One of MacLeod's hands stroked over his buttocks and pressed their groins together. He moaned, grinding his hips on the heavy outline of the erection that crowded his own.

Lack of air finally forced their mouths apart, and they gazed into each others' eyes, breathless and smiling, hands clinging to the only anchors they had--each other. Urgency simmered below the surface, but to snatch at gratification would lessen the moment, and the knowledge of it was shared between them, silent as a thought. Methos raised his hand to cup MacLeod's face, felt the heat of his lover's palm against his own cheek.

"Why did you run?" MacLeod whispered, and the sound of his voice was of velvet and promises.

"I--" Methos had to search for the words. "The mountain was falling."

MacLeod's eyes were heavy-lidded and sultry, his smile an offence against public propriety. "You can't outrun a mountain," he said, as if it made perfect sense to him. "Your place or mine?"

"Mine's nearest, and 'Manda will be coming through that door any minute now with a blade for my neck."

"No," he said, and leaned in to kiss the neck in question. "The game's over. We'll explain to her later. Tomorrow. Let's go home?"

"That sounds very good," Methos said. "Humour me--it's petty, I know, but I need to send a signal." With deft fingers he removed MacLeod's pearl tiepin and replaced it with his onyx one. The gleaming black cabochon stood out against the textured white, and he touched it with a fingertip before setting the pearl in his own tie. Then he held out his hands for MacLeod to exchange their cufflinks. "Anywhere you are is home," Methos said, vowed. "It's only taken me five thousand years to find it." He drew in a deep breath, and let it out with a sigh of relief and contentment. "Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, I'm in love with you."

###

Wishing she had enough room to secrete a sword inside her gown, Amanda stormed up the stairs. Methos was going to die. She probably wouldn't take his head, she told herself, but she would certainly do her damnedest use the knife strapped to her thigh to cut his heart out and make him eat it. There was no way she was going to let him wound Duncan, and he would be wounded, she didn’t doubt. He would be cut deep, because Methos was right, Duncan was half in love with the cynical old bastard, and for centuries now Methos had not stayed long enough in one place to build any kind of relationship except the superficial. And Duncan did not do superficial. It would be a cruel seduction--if she let it happen, which she wasn't about to do.

The uncomfortable jolt of Presence told her she was heading in the right direction. Then they were on the landing above her, standing shoulder to shoulder, watching her approach. She stopped short, hands on hips, glaring up at the lean black flame that was Methos. She didn’t miss the small glimmer of pearl that fastened his tie, and her anger spiked.

"You--" she began, but 'bastard' died on her lips. He looked dazed rather than smug, deliriously content rather than triumphant. It was Duncan whose expression was exultant with victory, Duncan, whose previously immaculate hair was a sable tangle about his shoulders and whose tie boasted a chip of night. "Okay," she sighed. "You win. This time."

"There won't be another time," Methos said quietly. "I told you: I played for keeps."

"And I won," said Duncan MacLeod.