|Matter & Antimatter
NOTE: This story is SLASH, rated NC-17 for m/m sex, so if such things offend you or it's illegal for you to read this where you live, please don't read it! You've been warned.
This was my first Highlander story, originally published in Indigo Boys 5, by In Person Press, and posted here with the very generous permission of the publisher. Thank you, Martha.
For Ellen, who corrupted and inspired, for Nick, who guided and conspired, and for Zen&nancy, whose stories make my toes curl.
Thunderclouds were building again in the western sky. They mirrored the charged heaviness in an ancient heart.
This is getting to be a habit, Methos thought bitterly, his long stride eating up the pavement. He'd done a lot of it lately--fading into the shadows, waiting for MacLeod to kill or be killed.
He could feel the throb of the bass even from here, and the wave of sound made by the ecstatic crowd as their idol appeared, muted by distance but swelling up through the pavement: the echo of the name. Methos knew the Highlander would wait. In his ineffable decency, he would give Byron one last night, one last moment in the spotlight before he lowered the inescapable hammer of MacLeod justice on that brilliant, doomed head.
Distant electric flashes traced the dark clouds up ahead, but it was the gathering storm at his back Methos felt, the anticipation of lightning much closer to home.
It was going to be a long night.
The club was closing when Methos got there, but Dawson let him in. The Watcher gave him a searching look, knowing instinctively something had happened.
"Did you see MacLeod?"
"I saw him." Methos met the kind, worried eyes, hating that he had to be the one to bring bad news. "Joe, I'm sorry to have to tell you this. Paladino... Mike's dead."
The ripple of shock that touched Dawson's face was so brief it barely had time to register, before it was swept it away by a swift surge of anger. "No, dammit--he's just a kid!" Methos touched the other man's elbow, turning him toward one of the vacant tables, but after half a step Dawson jerked free of his grasp. "What the hell happened?"
Plain facts, Methos thought. No sense in prettying it up--he won't appreciate it anyway. He put his hands in his pockets, since his touch wasn't wanted. "An overdose. Heroin and alcohol. I found him in Byron's hotel room." He paused meaningfully. "MacLeod knows."
He knew Dawson had gotten pretty much the whole picture in less than three seconds. The man's intuitive powers were considerable--and he knew MacLeod very well. He would know as well as Methos did how utterly inevitable the ending of this story would be.
But the Watcher's anger didn't fade. Renewed fury flushed his cheeks, his eyes sparking like the clash of steel. "Jesus." He struck the bar with his fist and turned away. "Why can't you stick to killing your own kind?" he hissed, obviously too angry to think about what he was saying. "Isn't that enough? You have to take a kid like that--" He cursed again, and Methos saw him close his eyes. "All he wanted to do was play. Just play his music..."
Methos moved close again, still not touching. "I am sorry."
Dawson's tension held a long moment, two. Then it ran out of him, and he sighed. He bowed his head. "No, I'm sorry. I didn't mean that, about--"
"I know. It's okay."
Grey eyes lifted, anger slipping away to sadness. "No, I shouldn't have said it. It isn't your fault."
"It's just such a waste," Methos said softly, understanding too well.
"Not your fault either, Joe."
"If it wasn't for me, the kid wouldn't have been here in the first place."
"You gave him a chance to do what he wanted to do. You aren't responsible for what he did with that chance. You know that."
The other man didn't answer, but turned and made his way toward the small stage at the front of the club. Methos followed, wanting a drink but not wanting to dull the blade of his own anger, which was coming to a fine and satisfying edge within him. He needed something strong and bitter to hold on to for a while, some weapon to wield against the certainty that one old friend was not all he was going to lose tonight.
Dawson took up his guitar and sat down wearily, not playing, just leaning on it and looking at his hands. Methos was too keyed up to sit. He circled aimlessly, running fingers over the edges of the drums. They were alone in the club, and he could hear the thunder coming closer. Dawson's head lifted.
Dawson nodded, listening. After a minute, he shifted the guitar, fingers moving over the strings, not really playing but just talking with the instrument, a moody wandering full of phrases that didn't really go anywhere. It occurred to Methos, listening, that this would be what he would remember about Joe Dawson a century from now. This moment.
"He wasn't always like that, you know." It wasn't meant to defend him; Methos just needed for some reason to say it. "The Byron I knew loved creating art, not destroying it."
Dawson didn't look up. "I know you tried to talk to him. Thanks for trying."
"He never should have been one of us. He wasn't made to live forever." Methos realized he was talking about the man in the past tense, and figured it was accurate, or would be soon enough. His lip curled. "MacLeod will solve that little problem for him, anyway."
Dawson's fingers paused over the guitar strings, and he gave Methos a harsh look. "I hope you'll understand if I say that I'm gonna pray you're right."
"Oh, you're all for a Highland judge, jury and executioner?" The anger flared, and Methos nurtured it.
"Maybe," Dawson shot back. "Maybe in this case it's been too long coming."
"Byron is not a murderer, Joe."
"Isn't he? You've read his file. You know about the others they found. Suicides. Mysterious accidents. Never any proof that he was involved, but it seems pretty clear now, doesn't it?"
Methos averted his face, not wanting to acknowledge what he'd guessed some time ago.
Dawson didn't wait for his answer. "You really telling me that you're not hoping with everything that's in you that it's Mac who walks through that door?"
The smoky voice was too gentle, too knowing. Methos felt his anger slipping before he could snatch it back. Suddenly boneless, he sank into the chair closest to the stage. He had no words to tell Joe what was in his heart, his desperation to avert Byron's inevitable fate because he didn't think the fragile, damaged creature that was his friendship with MacLeod could withstand another death, another grief. He didn't think he had it in him to forgive any more hurt, nor to beg a forgiveness that was too long overdue. The weight of all they carried just to be able speak to one another was becoming too great to bear.
He had been so desperately glad to see Byron, his once-upon-a-time lover. He'd hoped for an end to this loneliness and pain that kept him coming back to MacLeod like a starving man begging for scraps. He had been a fool; Byron had wanted only oblivion, and had only oblivion to offer. And now the Highlander would give it to him, and Methos' loneliness would be complete.
Damn you both, he thought bitterly. You are so well fitted to your roles--you each have what the other needs, and you will leave me with nothing.
Waiting again, Methos listened to the rain falling steadily against the street above, a muted sound like the footfalls of a vast, distant army.
"How do you do it, Joe?" he asked conversationally, tracing patterns on the small table. It wobbled just enough to be annoying.
Dawson looked up from the glass he held cradled between his knees. The guitar was on the floor beside him. "Do what?" He sounded exhausted. But he was waiting too, worried, not knowing what Methos knew in his heart--that Byron longed for death and certainly would not kill his ready-made executioner.
"How do you manage to stay friends with him?"
The mortal looked at him oddly. "That's kind of a strange question coming from you." When Methos didn't elaborate, Dawson straightened in his chair. "I owe him my life, several times over. I've had a lot of friendships that were based on less."
"Yes, but you have to have limits, don't you? How do you keep trusting him like you do?"
"What reason do I have not to trust him?" Dawson looked genuinely perplexed.
"Oh, so I suppose he's never let you down? Never failed to trust you? Never made you feel like you're just a convenient source of information, or maybe judged you unfairly? I just want to know how you do it, that's all. How you justify the price you pay to be the friend of Duncan MacLeod."
Dawson leaned forward, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. "Just who are we talking about here, Adam?"
Methos gave him a bland look, but the Watcher's face said he knew the game Methos was playing and chose to play along. "Every friendship has the good and the bad. I'm not exactly without flaws, you know. You know what he's done for me--you were there when he took a bullet in the back so I wouldn't have to carry the murder of a friend around for the rest of my life."
"Yes, but doesn't it make you just a little bit crazy, that he uses you the way he does? That he can't just be your friend, no strings, there always has to be a reason, a crisis?"
A long, measuring stare seemed to take him apart. At last Dawson said quietly, "That road goes both ways, my friend. Yeah, sure, sometimes it's hard. But that's the way it's always been, and that's the way it's always gonna be. That's who we are. When he calls me, the crisis is real. If I help him, that's my choice. I know the score."
"So why do you keep doing it? And don't say because you owe him. If that was all it was, you wouldn't be sitting here looking so worried, waiting to see him walk through that door."
"Mostly it's because he's worth caring about--whatever it costs me. Why do you do it? Isn't that what you're really asking me?"
Methos said nothing.
"You know why. It's because if there's a choice to be made, if being the friend of Duncan MacLeod, with all that entails, is a choice that you and I have made--then we got the easy part of the deal."
Methos couldn't help a small, incredulous laugh. "How do you figure?"
"Think about it. Think about what it must be like to be him--for a week. A day. We call him the `boy scout' and we tease him, and he laughs but he never denies it, you ever notice that? He never denies that's his goal, that's what he's trying for. He wants to save the world. And every day he has to live with death, and more death--at his hands. And at others' hands the death of people he cares about, people he loves."
"We all deal with that, Joe. Even the Watchers. I've been dealing with it for--"
"--five thousand years, I know. But can't you see the difference?"
Methos gave him a dry look. "Why don't you enlighten me."
"Everything he's chosen to fight for contradicts everything he is. And he knows that. It'd be a lot easier on him if he held himself apart, concentrated on fighting the good fight and didn't give a damn about the rest of us. But he doesn't do that. He chooses to love. And he chooses to fight, to kill when necessary. He makes a target of himself--and because of that everyone he loves--and finds the courage to do it again, and again, and to deal with it if those he loves can't be strong enough to love him back when they finally see what he really is."
How can he? Methos almost said. How can anyone be foolish enough to be that brave? He held the words back with effort. "And you think he's worth it," he said instead.
Joe sat back in his chair. "Yeah. Don't you?"
They looked at each other, that certainty ringing between them. Methos found himself remembering quite suddenly the story Mac had told him of his father's rejection, and what it had meant to him--and he realized for the first time that the ties that bound Dawson and MacLeod ran much deeper than he had ever guessed.
"I must," Methos agreed finally, ruefully. "Or I would be somewhere warm and tropical right this minute, instead of sitting in this empty bar in the middle of the night in this rainy, miserable city with you."
Dawson gave his wry, crooked grin. "I rest my case." He lifted his glass part way to his lips, then paused, those sharp eyes seeing with merciless clarity. "Now ask me something you don't already know."
Methos smiled slightly. "I'll let you know if I think of anything."
The club was quiet, the storm outside past, the city of lights hushed at the beginning of its long, breathless wait for dawn.
Dawson had picked up the guitar again, tuning it. Suddenly restless, Methos rose abruptly to his feet and resumed pacing, glancing involuntarily toward the door.
"You ever going to play that thing?"
"If you're nice to me." Dawson glanced up. "You're worried." It wasn't a question.
Methos forced a laugh. "About his oh-so-foolish head? No. About my sanity? Most definitely. A sane person would have gotten out of Dodge long ago. And yet here I stay, hanging around like a party crasher who doesn't know the party's moved down the block."
Dawson rested the instrument on his lap. "Let me ask you something. What do you think it meant to him, that the very first time you met, you offered him your head?"
"Probably that I deserved whatever I got for being so bloody reckless."
Dawson shook his head. "It meant that you believed in him. And no matter how many times you might laugh at him for being a boy scout, it's never going to take away the fact that you, Methos, the oldest of them all--for that one moment at least--agreed with his choices."
Like everything else that had passed between himself and MacLeod in the last two years, that memory tasted bittersweet now, a simplicity of feeling that wouldn't come again. "Yeah, well, times change."
"Is that a fact." The mortal's knowing gaze held that gentleness again, unwelcome and invasive, understanding him entirely too well. "Let me ask you something. After everything that's happened, don't you think he needs that now more than ever--for you to have faith in him? He does want you around, you know. Even if he doesn't know how to show it. He needs you more than he admits."
"Sure of that, are you?" Methos tried to keep it light, but it came out a whisper. And as simply as that his defenses were down, laid waste, and the fear and need and months-old hurt welled up so fast he barely managed to keep them from showing on his face.
Just then, the lights flickered and went out. In the sudden darkness they could see distant lightning flashing against the front windows.
The thought came quite, quite unexpectedly. Byron, if you have killed him I will make you know what it is to long for death.
There was no thunder.
More than half an hour had dragged by since the power had flickered, and Methos was getting very tired of being sober. He was also having a hard time remembering why it had seemed like a good idea in the first place.
He leaned against the bar, arms crossed protectively against his midriff. Dawson was playing softly. The low sweetness of that gravelly voice filled the waiting silence, making it bearable.
"Lately I've been running on faith
Lately I've been talking in my sleep
Where the hell was he? Mac had his car, surely it couldn't take him this long to get here from the concert hall. If it is Mac.
Of course it would be. Of course he knew that. Of course there wasn't any doubt. Well, maybe only just the slightest doubt.
Byron had never been one to fight fair. Why had he forgotten that?
"I've always been
Oh like a dream it'll come true
Methos buried his face in his arms, remembering how happy he'd been to see Byron come through that very door only two days before. He'd been a fool many times over, most notably for the delight he'd taken in MacLeod's seeming jealousy. How had he failed to foresee what would come of it? 'These two hated with a hate found only on the stage...'
Dawson's voice faded, and the guitar found another melody, mournful and as mellow as smooth aged whiskey.
Fuck sobriety, I need a drink.
And fuck the beer, for that matter.
Methos reached behind the bar, coming up with a glass and a bottle of Jameson. He took them with him to a table nearby, very deliberately not looking at the door--and it was then that it touched him, the unnerving sub-auditory current of Presence.
MacLeod. He knew it without having to look, but looked anyway, something hard and cold releasing in his chest when his eyes confirmed it, relief of a fear he hadn't really begun to let himself feel.
And on the heels of that, the loss, bitter and empty, catching him by surprise. Byron. Wild-born falcon... I only feel farewell. He met the Highlander's gaze, finding no words for the tangle of contradictions in his heart.
At the sight of MacLeod in the doorway, Dawson's music had faltered; it washed over them again now, bittersweet echo of the look Mac was giving him, the question in those sad, dark eyes. Methos averted his gaze and poured himself a drink, needing it badly. He was painfully aware of MacLeod's nearness, the low waves of current pouring off of him, skittering over Methos' skin like a caress. Quickening energy. Byron's. He felt his body's hum of response, and it sickened him.
MacLeod, mercifully, said nothing, only laid his coat on the chair opposite and moved to the bar to get himself a glass. Methos watched him out of the corner of his eye, unable to stop himself from doing so; the words came, though he hadn't meant to be the first to speak.
"Matter and antimatter. Byron knew that, too." Saying the name, a little of the bitterness spilled out. "His life had become one long tragedy."
The Highlander poured himself a drink and sat beside him. "We all know how those end," the softly burred voice said, as gentle as it had ever been.
And suddenly he felt Mac with him, feeling with him, no apology but a slow wash of shared grief, sorrow, and understanding that took his breath away and enraged him, made him want to hit something. He wanted it too much for safety. Damn you, he wanted to cry, don't do this now. Not now when I can still feel him inside of you, when I need to stay angry at you if I'm going to keep myself together. The weight of that dark gaze was more than Methos could bear; he turned as far away from it as he could.
It was a losing battle, of course, that closeness like sweet spring water after a drought, nothing he could fight against. It didn't matter that he knew it to be a hollow promise, nothing more.
Dawson's guitar commiserated, echoing his sadness and need.
"You were right, you know," MacLeod said after a time.
"About what?" Methos made his voice as hard as he could and knew he fooled no one, least of all himself.
"He was everything you said he was. A great artist. Larger than life."
"Once, maybe." Methos stared at his hands, unable to find the edge of anger he had whetted with such care. "I wanted to believe he still had that beauty in him."
"He wasn't meant for immortality."
"I know." He swirled the golden liquor, watching the reflections.
"He wanted to die, Methos."
At last Methos met the dark eyes over the rim of the glass, unable to stop himself. "Mac, I know. He wanted you to kill him, and he made sure you had no choice. I know that. I just--" He ran out of words. Morose, he drained his glass and set it down to refill it. MacLeod did it for him, then added a splash to his own.
"It's never easy to lose a friend."
Methos felt a burning in his throat and poured whiskey on it to put it out. Where does love go when it's been bludgeoned to the ground so many times it can't get up again?
I don't want to hate you, Duncan.
The broad, worn hand moved in his peripheral vision, and for a second Methos thought it would cover his. It didn't; MacLeod was merely toying with his glass restlessly, rolling it between his palms. And only then, feeling his pulse skipping unevenly, did Methos understand how badly he needed those hands on him, more than he ever had before, more than was safe. The anger surfaced again without warning, hot and shivery and dangerous. Byron was not a cause, only a catalyst. Methos was full of old rage, and hurt, and need--and MacLeod had taken a head. No, they definitely were not safe together, not now, maybe not ever.
He rose abruptly, nearly overturning the chair.
MacLeod's head came up, startled. "Methos?"
"Another time, Highlander. Tonight I think I'll drink alone. Joe--" The Watcher looked up, and for an instant Methos let his eyes speak his gratitude. And with that he turned to go, tucking the bottle into his black coat.
Behind him, there was a scraping on the wooden floor; MacLeod rising to stop him. Methos kept moving, up the steps and out into the humid night, jamming his hands savagely in his pockets as the door closed behind him.
MacLeod didn't come after him as he once would have, and Methos didn't want to think about what that meant. Didn't want to think about the persistent certainty he felt that there would be no more chances for them.
Ever since Bordeaux, he had lived in expectation of judgment at MacLeod's hands. He was exhausted from fearing it, from longing for it. Sleep had proved as elusive as the Grail; when it came at all the dreams gave him little rest.
Every day that had passed without incident had cut him more deeply, made him feel more certain that they would not get past this, that what they were together could not survive what he had been, what they had cost one another. They'd danced around each other, going through the motions of a friendship that had once sustained them both until Methos had wondered if he was the only one who felt the strain, the difference. He didn't know why there had been a reprieve, nor why he had stayed when every survival instinct he possessed told him to go to ground somewhere far away from the Highlander and the hurt he caused as easily as breathing.
The sound of water lapping on bricks reached him then. His feet had carried him toward the river without his conscious volition; Notre Dame rose up ahead, spectacular and ghostly under its floodlights.
As simply as that, the lie slipped away. Of course he knew why he had stayed, not just for the past two months but for more than two years. He had known from the beginning--some part of him had known. What more fitting payment could there be for what he was, what he had been? It was utterly inevitable, that his soul should have recognized Duncan MacLeod and yearn to be joined with him in every way possible, this man who was the mirror of himself but who was everything he hadn't chosen, this bright warrior whose very nature would demand a reckoning Methos had done perfectly well without for two thousand years.
From the beginning, the need to be known and accepted by this one man above all others had been a dangerous, unprecedented, nearly irresistible longing. For the first time in his life, his own acceptance of his dark past hadn't been enough. Everything in the universe seeks its opposite, Methos thought.
Matter and antimatter. Perfectly mated, endlessly attracting, but only disaster resulted when they came together. The pathetic futility of it was painfully clear, now, and he damned himself for a fool for not facing it sooner. While he was at it, he damned Byron for his weakness and MacLeod for his strength, and for being Methos' own weakness, and for ever laying eyes on him.
He does want you around, you know. Even if he doesn't know how to show it. He needs you more than he admits.
Methos mentally added Joe Dawson to his list of targets. Yes, damn you too, Watcher, who asked you anyway?
Perhaps out of some perceived debt of honor, MacLeod had chosen to cut him with cool tolerance rather than steel. That casual disregard was a weapon that sliced deeper than any judgment could have--all the more so because Mac didn't seem to consider their onetime closeness to be any big loss. Even Byron's descent seemed to have evoked more emotion from the Highlander than anything Methos had done lately. And as Methos stood watching the play of lamplight on the dark river, he understood at last his own jealousy, and found that understanding it did not make it hurt any less.
It was that more than anything that pushed him finally into a kind of resigned defeat. The water lapped gently at the hull of the barge, not fifty feet away; very deliberately, Methos turned and strode in the opposite direction.
Leaving is easy, he thought, watching the wet bricks disappear beneath his feet eight at a time. I've done it a thousand times before. I know leaving better than anyone. How hard can it be?
The thought made him feel freer, lighter, made it instantly easier to breathe. Oh yes, it was definitely time to leave. Where then? The tropics? Someplace warm sounded appealing, but he'd had more than enough rain to last him for a while. Australia, maybe. Minimal luggage, minimal packing. If he locked up the flat and dealt with it later, he could be in the air by eight a.m. at the latest.
What if MacLeod came looking for him, though? For an instant he pictured righteous Scottish fury, and couldn't help the wicked satisfaction the image brought him. He liked thinking of the Highlander pounding on his locked door, furious--or better yet bewildered, his pride wounded. Maybe he'd worry that someone had finally gotten the drop on old Methos and taken his head. He'd storm the streets of Paris looking for the culprit, sworn not to rest until the dastardly villain was no more...
Methos smiled bitterly at the image. Not bloody likely, old man. The way things have been lately, you'd be lucky if he didn't try to look the guy up to say `much obliged, you saved me the trouble.'
But that bit too close to the bone, and as hard as he tried he couldn't sustain the black humor.
What was it about this man that could unmake him so effortlessly? And when had it become so fucking hard to imagine a life without one infuriating, overgrown Scottish boy scout in it?
That was good. Yes, that was better... if he let himself get pissed off enough he might be able to do this. Might be able to stop thinking about how many parts of him were hurting right now, and how there was only one cure for all that ailed him. He fed the rage by thinking of those unfeeling hands that would caress a whiskey glass yet offer him nothing, not even the judgment he so feared. Yes, think of the coldness in dark eyes that could not forgive, think of the full, sweet lips that dealt pain so readily. We're through. That mouth could cut deeper than any blade. You kill him, I swear Methos--you face me.
No, don't think of that. Don't think of the way he says your name, the way he said it that first day, all wonder and astonishment. Don't think of how long it had been since anyone had said it like that, all the long centuries of never being known, never letting anyone close enough to know. Don't think of how it made you feel, still makes you feel to hear him say it. Don't think...
He knew he shouldn't have let himself think about that mouth. That was never a good idea.
Australia, he reminded himself grimly. Rio, maybe. Less than two blocks now, and he'd be at the flat. Just a little longer--he could do this. No problem, nobody did leaving like he did.
As for MacLeod following, as very unlikely as it was, he could take care of that easily enough. A few choice words meant to hurt, a warning that said he meant business written in a terse note stuck to the door with a pre-Columbian sacrificial dagger--that ought to get the message across. Yes, lovely, just the thing for the Immortal who has everything.
Gray dawn was just beginning to touch the edges of the sky, a bleak hint of light that gave no promise of sunshine, only more grayness to come. Methos rounded the corner of his building and yanked the door open viciously, well on his way to working himself into a truly black temper. He banged his shin; it helped immensely. Starting up the stairs he took them two at a time, fishing his keys out of his pocket as he went.
But what to say? One had to strike just the right chord, just the right combination of threat and scorn to make sure of a clean exit, that was key. We're through was so wonderfully succinct, but he hated to be unoriginal. Get fucked had a nice ring to it, but did have the drawback of being somewhat vague in its intentions, besides lacking style. I never want to see you again was rather cliche, of course--
Methos reached the top of the stairs and stopped in his tracks. And found himself suddenly, painfully aware that besides being a cliche, it was also completely untrue.
He had been so deeply enmeshed in his own dark thoughts that the strong signal of Presence had not reached him until that moment.
"I let myself in downstairs," MacLeod said quietly, getting up from where he'd been sitting cross-legged in the hallway. "I hope that's all right."
Seeing him there in his red silk shirt with his hair loose about his shoulders, Methos had never found him more devastating--not even in that miraculous moment when the velvet voice had spoken his name for the first time, standing in the long rays of sunshine all those months ago.
"Oh no, fine, make yourself at home," he managed, with something close to his usual asperity. "Hallway's lovely this time of night. I'm going to bed." He got the key into the lock without incident. Don't look at him. Look bored. You can do this.
"Methos," Duncan said, very softly, and he was lost. His hand faltered fractionally. The key slipped. He turned on MacLeod, snarling because he couldn't help it.
"Please. We need to talk."
Methos heard himself breathing hard, as if he'd been running. He tried to find the words of denial, rejection, but they didn't come, and after a moment Mac took the keys out of his nerveless fingers and unlocked the door.