The long drive back to Paris was spent in near silence. Relief of tension had made Methos feel chatty despite his own exhaustion, but MacLeod was not in a talking mood. When Methos suggested that they stop and eat he had to ask Duncan twice before he got his attention. The Scot seemed distant, exhausted and depressed and he hardly touched the food Methos picked up at a combined gas station and grocery store. Mac warned Methos just before they entered the barge that the place was torn up, making a lame joke about "Not being himself lately." When they finally entered his living quarters, Duncan was tense in expectation of seeing the place torn apart, but stopped in surprise at the bottom of the steps. The tables he had overturned, the objects of his past he had tossed and the shelves of books, pictures, stereo equipment and memorabilia that he had swept onto the floor were neatly back in place. Some pieces were missing, broken in his angry, desperate rampage. Movement could be heard in the galley at the far end of the barge, and a slight, dark haired figure poked her head out to see who had come in.
"Well, ye finally made it back, I see," Rachael MacLeod said with a shy, relieved smile. When Pierson had left her back in Scotland after taking the MacLeod sword, he was uncertain when, or even if, he or Duncan would be back, hinting at potential dire consequences.
"Rachael? What are you doing here?" Duncan asked in open astonishment.
"Well, Rachael MacLeod, you do turn up in the most unexpected places," Methos observed wryly. The woman showed the same meddling, troublesome, interfering nature as her clansman. What was this, a MacLeod trademark? "How do you think I got the MacLeod sword?" Methos addressed to Duncan.
Rachael, wiping her hands on a dishtowel, came down the steps to the living room and stood, hands nervously clasped in front. "Someone really trashed the place, Duncan, but I did my best to clean it up. If I put yer things back in the wrong place, just let me know."
Duncan swallowed, uncertain how to respond. His and Rachael’s lives had a tenuous, but almost mystical connection. She was of his clan, a distant, distant relative down through the centuries. He wasn’t sure whether to think of her as cousin or . . . something else. And right now, he felt incapable of any emotion.
Methos nudged him forward. "Come on, Mac, take off your coat and unwind a little."
MacLeod mechanically removed his coat, hanging it carefully on the coat rack. Rachael came up behind him and put her hand gently on his back.
"I hope ye don’t mind, Duncan, that I’m here. Do ye mind?" she said softly.
He turned and held her shoulders, then gently hugged her small frame. "No, ye wee lass, I don’ mind." he whispered, echoing her highland brogue. "I just have some problems of my own to deal with and don’t have much energy left for anything else."
Rachael’s eyes grew large as she drew back, taking in the dried blood, the holes and rips in the black, bulky sweater Duncan had been wearing for days. "What happened, Duncan? Are ye hurt?" she said in dismay.
"No, no, Rachel. I’m fine," he reassured her. Suddenly aware that it had been days since he had bathed, shaved or even changed clothes, MacLeod stepped away from her, rummaging in his dresser for at least a clean shirt or sweater. As he stripped the black sweater off, Rachel hissed in alarm at the streaks of blood across his chest and back.
"Mac!" Methos said sharply, indicating with his head that Mac should change out of sight of the mortal. It was a measure of Duncan’s physical and emotional exhaustion that he had momentarily forgotten that precaution.
"I . . . guess I’d best take a shower," Mac said sheepishly, grabbing fresh clothes and heading to the other side of the barge and up the stairs.
Methos and Rachael stood in awkward silence after Duncan disappeared.
"He looks terrible," Rachel said.
"He’s had a bad time, Rachael. He needs some time to rest, to regroup," Methos explained carefully.
"You don't look that great yourself, Adam Pierson. Are ye saying I should leave?" she asked.
"I think that might be best," he answered. He had brought in the MacLeod sword, carefully wrapped in its tartan cloth. He picked it up and held it out to her. "In the end, Rachael, this saved him. I can’t really explain how, but it was vital. Thank you."
She took the sword lovingly. "This sword belongs to him, doesn’t it? Who is he? Is he the Duncan MacLeod of legend, from out of time? It seems so improbable, but at the same time, so . . . right."
"Let him go, Rachael," Methos said. "His life is difficult, different from most. Whatever he is, you need to let him go."
She looked at the long, heavy claymore, so incongruous in her delicate hands. "I’m not ready for that. You pulled me back into his life. You can’t just send me away." She met Methos’ hard gaze with equally hard defiance, laid the blade carefully on Mac’s desk and returned to the kitchen.
Methos sighed, wondering what price he and Duncan would have to pay for the necessity of retrieving the MacLeod sword. God, he was tired, he thought. The emotional strain of the past weeks finally caught up with him as he took off his coat and sank wearily into a chair.
He started awake when MacLeod finally emerged from the shower, dressed in clean jeans and a sweater, his hair damp and curling around his shoulders. He had shaved, but cleaning up his exterior had not improved the haunted look glittering dully in his eyes. He was noticeably thinner, but despite not having eaten a real meal in days, he only picked at the elaborate dinner Rachel put on the table.
Methos, to the contrary, was starved, eating several helpings of the beef and potatoes. He and Rachel tried to keep up a conversation, but both of them were uncomfortably aware that Mac’s mind was elsewhere as he distractedly moved food around on his plate with his fork.
Eventually they moved into the living area. Mac sat in his big leather chair, leaning forward on his elbows, staring into the fire. Methos served everyone some brandy, which Mac took wordlessly.
Methos reclined sideways on the couch, stretching his long legs in front of him, while Rachel sat on the floor, tinkering with the ornate chess set on the large square coffee table that sat in front of the fireplace. Ultimately, she moved to Mac’s side, leaning her head against his knee while Duncan absently stroked her hair.
Methos started awake again, realizing that he must have dozed off for awhile. Rachel had moved in front of MacLeod, had his face in her hands and was kissing him gently. Mac responded with restraint, putting his hand behind her head, then folding her into his arms and pulling her onto his lap. She lay there quietly, her head against his shoulder. Methos kept still and watched out of slitted eyes, maintaining the pretence of slumber.
Finally Mac whispered the first non-monosyllabic response of the evening. "Rachael, I can’t be who you want me to me."
She put her small hand against his face, looking into his dark, sad eyes. "And who do ye think that is, Duncan MacLeod?"
"A hero of the Clan MacLeod, a man who can love you and take care of you. Someone who will be there when you need him, who can protect you."
"Och! Ye’re a daft, big oaf, Duncan MacLeod. Who says I need protecting, or anyone taking care of me?"
Duncan leaned his forehead against her soft hair. "I’m sorry. I’m babbling at this point. I just know that I don’t have anything to give anyone right now."
She gently stroked his face. "I’m not asking you to give anything, Duncan MacLeod. How about my giving something to you, instead?" She lifted his face and kissed him long and sweetly.
Duncan folded his arms around her. She felt so small, so frail. He was afraid he would crush her in his clumsiness, but her warmth and softness felt so good, such a relief after a long, long dark nightmare. The tension and grief he had been swallowing for so long snapped suddenly like a frayed cable and Duncan unexpectedly found tears slipping down his cheeks, then he was shuddering with sobs while she held him in her arms.
She held him for a long time, letting him weep, wondering what terrible tragedy caused such pain and grief. Finally, he stopped, put his head back with a deep ragged breath that caught in his throat, and wiped his wet face with his hand. Rachael helped him, gently blotting his tears with her own sleeve. He chuckled grimly, his breath catching again. "Sorry about that," he gasped.
"Relax, Duncan," she said softly, "Let it all go," and she continued to stroke his face. His eyes closed and gradually the bunching of his massive shoulders loosened and his breathing became deep and regular.
She waited until he was deeply asleep before she carefully extricated herself from his arms, disturbing him only slightly. As she stepped away, she looked over and her eyes met Methos’.
He quietly got up and with wave of his arm indicated they ought to step outside. The river shown like black ink from the reflected dark of a moonless sky and their breath fogged the air as they moved to the end of the barge.
"Do ye still think I should leave?" Rachael asked.
"I don’t know," Pierson replied cautiously. "He can’t answer your questions, Rachel. He’s in a lot of pain and you obviously have a knack for comforting him, but what he was saying is true. He can’t be the person you want or need."
"Maybe I can be the person he needs, just for now. Maybe that’s enough, just for now," she said, watching the lights of the city swim on the river’s surface.
Pierson nodded, hands shoved deep in his pockets as he thought of Alexa, who needed him now, maybe more than MacLeod did. Just as he needed her. Finally, he reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet, removing a small white card. "If you think either of you need me, call this number and leave a message."
Rachel took the card, which had Adam’s name and a telephone number printed on it, stared at it for a minute, then tucked it into her jeans. "He needs me right now, Adam. I don’t care if he loves me, or if it never goes any further than it did tonight. He is part of my history, part of my clan, part of my life. I could no more walk away from him than I could walk away from who I am."
Methos smiled. "You are a miracle, Rachel MacLeod, like a living, breathing, loving incarnation of the family he lost long ago. He’s very lucky."
"What happened, Adam Pierson?" When she saw him withdraw into himself, she pursued further, aggressively. "He’s a fine man, a decent man. Why does sadness and death hover about him so?"
The woman deserved a response, Methos realized. But he couldn’t give her what she wanted. "The world needs fine and decent men, Rachael," he said. "Especially where there is sadness and death. Otherwise there would only be anger and despair. That’s his gift. He has a knack for always finding hope. Somehow, it makes hope possible for the rest of us, as well." They stood for a long while, Methos lost in thought about Alexa, lying in a hospital in Geneva, only a few weeks of life left. Was there hope there? Maybe only a hope, a wish, that he could fill her life with love while she yet lived, and then carry her love with him beyond her death.
They went back inside and as they came down the steps MacLeod twisted uncomfortably in his chair. His face was damp with sweat and his eyes were moving rapidly behind his lids. He woke with a gasp and a small cry. It took a few seconds for him to recognize his surroundings.
"Rachael!" he cried as she quickly crossed to him, knelt and wiped his streaming face. He closed his eyes and put his arms around her as she shushed him and rocked him like a child.
Methos buttoned his coat, picked up the bag he had brought in anticipation of staying on the barge and quietly slipped away. He was needed elsewhere.
MacLeod clung to Rachael like a lifeline. She was so completely human. No death here, no guilt, only unquestioning acceptance. Over his protests, she pulled him to the bed, lying beside him, fully clothed. He would drift off, exhaustion claiming him, but within minutes, the nightmares would come and she would hold him while he struggled with his internal horrors. By dawn, he had finally seemed to lapse into true sleep. She tucked a blanket over him and settled back into the covers, relaxing for the moment, but always vigilant, standing watch. It was, after all, an ancient tradition, a worthy and noble duty the MacLeod's had been fulfilling since the earliest memories of the Clan -- guarding their own.