Comments: The latest instalment of the Thousand Years universe, set some forty years after 'Hopes for the Future' and 'Escaping the Horsemen'

Disclaimer: With the exception of Ahymee, no one who appears in this story belongs to me. They are all owned by DPP. I don't make any money out of this, it's done for love and entertainment - you can sue me over this, but really, all you'll get is a dying African Violet and half a bottle of mineral water...

Comments: As the title and summary might lead you to imagine this IS a gathering story with everything that implies. You don't have to have actually read anything else I've ever written to get this - although there are a couple of references to 'Shades of the Past' and 'Sins of the Present' – in fact if you've read 'Sins of the Present' you can probably figure out where this story's likely to go. I make no apologies. This story is the link between 'Sins of the Present' and 'Shadows of the Future' (which is currently under production).

This hasn't been strictly beta read - so any mistakes are my own fault.

Feedback is gratefully received: Rachel.Trench@blueyonder.co.uk

The Prize

The plains of Armageddon, 2053AD

As the final bolts of the quickening dissipated, Cassandra was hit by his presence. **Good,** she thought, slowly turning to face him. And there he was. Methos - one of only two remaining Immortals left on the planet.

"Why?!" he yelled.

She could hear the anguish and pain in his voice, but she couldn't let herself be moved by it. What he felt now didn't matter.

"Because I had to," she finally answered. Then, choosing her words carefully, she added, "Because you corrupted him." She watched as her meaning slowly permeated through his mind. "You killed and murdered my tribe," she continued, forcing anger and pain into every note of her voice, "and you perverted my solstice child."

"But I..."

He was confused - good. "You *what*?" she hissed.

His face hardened into a despairing anger. "Whatever I thought, I was wrong. You had no right to involve him in your feud with me."

"I had *every* right, and now I'm strong enough to face you."

For a fraction of a second, she thought he was going to balk. Then with reluctance, he drew his sword. "If you had kept this just between us, you could have had my head any time you wanted it - and you know that. But involving Mac..."

"Shut up and fight!"

And the fight was on. Cassandra came at him, swinging her blade wildly. Art was sacrificed for artifice - it didn't matter what her skills looked like, as long as he kept fighting. There were no ifs, ands or buts - this had to be done.

Then it was over. He disarmed her and held his sword to her throat. She could see hesitation in his eyes - he couldn't hesitate. He *mustn't* hesitate. She poured as much scorn and anger into her expression as she could, but before she could find the words to goad him into finishing, he spoke.

"I don't want to do this." There were tears in his eyes as he said the words. "But you've left me no choice." He drew the sword back. "I'm sorry."

Cassandra forced herself to watch the sword blade descend towards her vulnerable neck. When she judged he could no longer pull the blow, she smiled. "I forgive you. Now forgive yourself."

***

There was silence following the fall of Cassandra's head. Methos stared at her in non-comprehension.

"Why?"

The quickening was starting to build up, but Methos ignored it. He simply stared at her body. She forgave him? Suddenly he felt his flesh grow cold. It had been an act. It had all been an act. As the first bolts of Cassandra's quickening struck him, the realisation that both Cassandra and MacLeod had been playing out a charade hit him like a torrent of ice water.

"Why?"

The question was screamed above the howl of the wind and the crash of the lightning as Cassandra's quickening poured itself into him. They both knew he had no wish to be the last. Why had they forced him into it?

Because this is what must be.

The voice echoed inside Methos' head as more and more energy and power burned their way into him. The voice was familiar yet strange, as though it belonged to someone he knew yet couldn't recognise.

Then suddenly the pain stopped and he found himself looking at the quickening as it assailed his body as though he were watching it on television. Looking round he saw he was joined by a host of others. Some he recognised, some he didn't.

"Why?" he asked softly.

The host spoke as one. "Because it must be you."

Then once voice added, "Because it is your destiny, Idiyan."

"Ahymee?"

The owner of the voice stepped forward of the host and smiled. "We meet again, little one - not so little now."

"I don't want this."

Ahymee's smile turned bitter sweet. "That is why you must be the One. Out of all of us you are the only one who has never held hopes of being the last."

"But - I'm not worthy. The things I've done..." Methos trailed off as he spotted Cassandra standing next to Ahymee. "The people I've hurt."

"You are worthy," Ahymee replied. "Everything you've learned. Everything you've taught. Everything you've experienced. The good times and the bad times. You are the best of us."

"Brother!" Silas forced himself to the front to stand next to Cassandra. "I knew. I knew it would be you. I hoped it would be you."

"But..." Methos shook his head and tried again. "But I killed you."

Silas grinned. "What other choice was there?"

"But I betrayed you."

"Did you?" Silas smiled. "Or did I betray you in Palmyra? No - it was the only thing you could have done."

"This is as it should be," said a new voice softly. From the host appeared Rebecca. "Dear heart - I know it will be hard, but this is what was meant to be."

"Rebecca..." Methos felt tears sting his eyes. "I should have been able to stop Luthor...I should have..."

Rebecca chuckled. "No man may judge another as he judges himself. Dear heart there was nothing you could have done to prevent Luthor's actions and you know it."

"Just as there was nothing you could have done to prevent my death," added another voice.

"Darius?"

The warlord turned priest stepped from the host to stand with Rebecca. "Hello, old friend."

"But - how?"

Darius smiled. "It was not simply your anger that helped to defeat V'ndra, but you were too wrapped up in your own anger and disappointment to notice."

"And I thought it was us Barbarians who were unobservant," cut in an unmistakable Scottish accent.

Methos blinked. Beside Darius appeared both Duncan and Connor MacLeod. It had been Connor who had spoken first, but Duncan now added, "He should watch who he calls a barbarian." Connor chuckled and nodded.

"Mac why?" Methos asked, ignoring the by-play between the two Clansmen.

Duncan's smile faded and his expression turned serious. "Because it had to be this way. No ifs, ands or buts. Please don't blame Cassandra – the whole idea was mine. I'm sorry for pushing your buttons..." A wicked light appeared in Duncan's eyes. "Think of it as payback for all of your teasing."

In spite of himself, Methos found himself grinning. "I guess you did owe me for that."

"So no brooding," Duncan added.

Methos hiccuped - whether it was laughter or tears he wasn't sure. "No brooding. Me?"

"Yes, you, you old goat," stated yet another new voice. "I never met a bigger brooder than this one."

"Ramierez?"

And there was the Egyptian, standing next to his protégé. "That's Juan Sanchez Villa Lobos Ramierez, Metopholus." The rebuke was stern but there was an unmistakable twinkle in his eyes.

"I never had the chance to thank you."

"No," Ramierez agreed. "That you didn't. But you've thanked me every day by your continued survival, and that is all the thanks I need."

Methos could only stare at his one time mentor. He may have been the elder of the pair, but Ramierez had taught him how to be a person again after spending a thousand years as a monster and a thousand more as a slave.

"Now it's time for you to take your own advice for a change."

Some how, Methos was unsurprised at this voice. "Amanda."

"You know it, darling." The thief smiled impishly. "Live and grow stronger, Methos. Do us proud."

"Remember us," exhorted Ahymee.

"Remember us, and we will be with you," urged Rebecca.

"But live," put in Silas.

"It's what you do best, Methos," said Darius.

"Aye - this is your path. Don't stray," Connor contributed.

"Be strong, be true - be you," stated Ramierez.

"Remember what you told me about Alexa," added Duncan. "Without you, who would remember us?"

"And know yourself loved," murmured Cassandra, blowing him a kiss.

"Don't leave..." But the host was already fading.

"We are not gone," the voice of the host answered. This time Methos recognised it - it was every voice of every Immortal he had ever known blended together. "We will always be with you. We promise."

The host faded away and Methos faded back into consciousness as the final bolts of quickening seared his nervous system not with the expected pain, but with the gentle caress of a lover. They had loved him. Cassandra, Duncan, Rebecca, Silas... They had all loved him, one way or another.

That was when the tears began to fall.