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Original December 2008; last modified March 15, 2009.  Written for the Oldschoolfic Winter 2008 game.  Please see the endnote for disclaimers, credits and all that good stuff.

So This is Home
a Highlander fanfiction
by Amy R.

Christmas Day
December 25, 1992

"Time to get up, Richie."  Duncan MacLeod's voice came through the door over the rap of knuckles on wood.

"C'mon, Mac," Richie groaned and pulled his pillow over his face.  "Aren't grown-ups supposed to sleep in on Christmas?"

"It's almost noon."  Another knock.  The door opened and light flooded the room.  Richie peeked out from under the pillow.  Sighed.  Sat up.  Leaning on the door frame with his arms crossed, MacLeod was fully dressed in jeans and a dark green shirt, with his black hair tied back, and the unfair glow of someone who runs twelve miles and squeezes his own orange juice while normal people are hitting their snooze buttons.  MacLeod grinned.  "Tessa won't look in her shoes until you're there."

"Her shoes?"

"Santa Claus fills stockings.  Père Noël fills shoes."

"Duncan, remind him that breakfast comes after shoes and stockings," Tessa's voice echoed down the hall.

"You're holding breakfast for me?"  Appalled, Richie reached for the chair where he piled his clothes.  MacLeod closed the door, leaving the light on.  To Richie's surprise, his stomach had rumbled at the mention of breakfast.  He would have thought he'd eaten enough the night before to last the day at least.  Tessa, who normally left the stove to MacLeod, had baked, boiled or bought twelve different Christmas Eve desserts for some French tradition he hadn't caught the name of.  He hadn't known which sweets were important or why, so he'd been sure to eat them all.

Twelve was also about the count of varieties of Christmas celebrations that Richie Ryan figured he had been through in his just-turned-eighteen years, across foster homes, the orphanage, and one memorable December in juvenile hall.  Because everything changed almost every year, nothing had become a tradition for him -- no particular observance had mattered.

Until now.

St Nicholas Day
December 6, 1992

"So what are Tessa and MacLeod doing for Christmas?" Angie asked.  The brown-haired girl deftly removed a mayonnaise-covered knife from Richie's hand before he could lick it.

"I don't know."  Richie grinned down at her and picked up another knife to slice the bologna sandwiches they'd just made.  Angie had told him that winter was the busiest time of year at the Our Daily Bread soup kitchen where she worked, but until he'd taken up her invitation to volunteer a couple of hours a week, he hadn't imagined how much really went into feeding thousands of people.  Piles of food surrounded them on the counters now, and the walk-in refrigerator had been a revelation.  "For Thanksgiving, we went to dinner at some friends of theirs.  They had this bratty fourteen-year-old daughter, Michelle.  I couldn't figure out whether they expected me to play with her or what."

"Says the aging geezer," Angie snorted.  She began tucking the finished sandwiches into baggies.  "Hey, I bet they go skiing!  That's what rich people do at Christmas, right?  Go off to a resort in the mountains, eat at restaurants every day, have someone else clean up after them -- oh, wait, that'd be you, wouldn't it?"

"Ha, ha.  Very funny."

"Seriously, how can you not know what they're doing for the holiday?  It's less than three weeks away, and you work in their shop and live in their house."

"You know how people kind of take things for granted when they're the same every year?"  Richie turned his back to the counter and leaned against it, looking across the kitchen to avoid Angie's sharp gaze.  "Anyway, what are you doing for Christmas?  You gonna see your brother?"

"Nah.  His unit is stationed on the DMZ in Korea.  I'll probably just stick by the phone until we can get a quick call through, and then maybe go to the park or something, if it's not too wet.  My roommate will be visiting her family."  Angie hesitated.  "It's no ski resort, but if nothing better comes along, you're more than welcome to stop by my apartment on the big day.  I decorated my ficus."

Richie met her eyes in surprise, and smiled back at the dimpled grin of his best pal since third grade.  How had he ever let himself lose touch with her?  And with poor Gary, now three months dead at the hands of that diamond-thieving herbalist.  "I'd like that a lot."

"Good."  She bumped him with her shoulder.  "Now help me peel these potatoes."

Christmas Day

Hastily pulling on a band t-shirt and jeans with holes only in the knees, Richie made a quick pit stop in the bathroom, and then rushed to the open space around the glassed-in fireplace, where the dining room bumped into the couch and turned into the living room.  They had all decorated the tree last night, between desserts, and Richie's gaze immediately went to his own gifts to MacLeod and Tessa.  The two little ones were easy to spot in their comics-page wrapping, and the big one behind the tree would have been impossible to miss no matter what he did with it.

"Well?"  Tessa turned her head and widened her eyes at him from where she shared the corner of the couch with MacLeod.  "Pick up your stocking!"

"My stocking?" Richie echoed.  Sure enough, on the stone rim encircling the fireplace lay one of his white tube socks -- clean and bulging.  He picked it up and stared from it to Tessa, who held in her cross-legged lap a pair of ankle boots with candy canes sticking out the top.  Her red blouse looked very Christmassy as she leaned against MacLeod's green shirt, and Richie briefly worried he'd missed a clothing cue.  But Tessa's blonde hair was pulled into a ponytail, and that and the no make-up meant it was just them, right?

"Any time now, Richie."  MacLeod held up a similar lumpy sock.

"Oh, right!"  Richie sat on the floor in front of the fireplace and spilled his footwear onto the glass coffee table.  Candy, batteries, cassettes, a rolled-up copy of the latest issue of Cycle World magazine -- and one tiny orange.  At least, Richie thought it was an orange.  Did oranges come that small?  He held it between a finger and thumb and looked up at MacLeod and Tessa, who were comparing their own goodies, all of which seemed to have ended up in Tessa's lap.

"So are you related to this Père Noël guy or what?" Richie asked.

Tessa grinned as she put on a pair of new gold earrings.  "Wouldn't you like to know?"

"How much really fits in a kid's shoe, though?"

"Not much, maybe," Tessa narrowed her eyes.  "But at least Père Noël fills two shoes for every child, while your Santa allows only one stocking."

"Mac?"  Richie appealed for support.

"Don't look at me.  I'm not asking anyone to convert between myths."  MacLeod started peeling a tiny orange like the one in Richie's hand.  Richie imitated him in opening the fruit, but where MacLeod fed every other section to Tessa, Richie ate all of his himself and wondered whether it would be all right to mention breakfast.

The telephone rang.  MacLeod and Tessa looked understandably reluctant to get up and answer, so Richie did.  "Noel and MacLeod residence, Richie speaking."

Immaculate Conception
December 8, 1992

"Who was that on the phone?" MacLeod asked from behind the desk as Richie walked slowly into the office.

"Angie."  Richie stuffed his hands into his pockets.  "Mac, is there any chance I could borrow your car this afternoon?  Or Tessa's?  I mean, I know I'd have to ask Tessa about her car, but you're right here, so I thought I'd start with you."

MacLeod set down his pen and leaned back in the chair.  "What happened?"

"Some creeps stole the refrigeration compressor and some copper wiring from the soup kitchen -- to sell it for scrap, I guess.  The food's going to spoil, so they want to move everything that won't get eaten today across town to another shelter.  Her boss has a car, but Angie just has her bike -- that car I sold her is still in the shop -- and there's a lot of stuff to move pretty fast."

MacLeod pulled his keys out of his pocket.  "Want any help?"

"If you've got the time, they'll take all they can get."  Richie spread his hands.

"Get your coat."  MacLeod tossed the keys to Richie.  "I'll meet you at the car as soon as I tell Tess and make a quick call."

It was only the second time Richie had been allowed to drive MacLeod's vintage black Thunderbird convertible.  So despite the circumstances, and even with the ragtop up against the winter rain, he tried to make the most of it.  But his mind wouldn't stay on the automotive beauty at his fingertips.

"I know what you're thinking," Richie said to MacLeod in the passenger seat.


"But I never stole from people who couldn't afford it, never where it would hurt."  Richie blushed.  "Anyway, that's what I told myself.  These guys can't help knowing that people are gonna go hungry because of what they did!"

"It's a tough neighborhood."

"Sure, I know, but it's like there used to be this unspoken agreement.  Hands off the clinic, the shelters and the churches, right?  Maybe a broken window or cash box, okay, but--"  At the next intersection, Richie looked up and found MacLeod smiling at him.  "What?"


"Okay then."  Richie turned through the intersection and then into the parking lot that the soup kitchen shared with All Saints Church, which sponsored it.  He hesitated between pulling into a regular space farther out and driving right up to the painted curb, where the trunk of a compact car was currently being loaded.

Angie came out the door with an armful of packages of sliced cheese and spotted them.  As soon as she dropped the cheese in the car, she waved them up.

"Hey, Richie, Mr. MacLeod."  Angie flashed a smile, but it didn't stretch to her ears as usual.  She had buttoned her denim jacket all the way to the top against the wet chill.  "Thanks for coming -- and for bringing such a nice, big trunk."

MacLeod shook her hand.  "It's Duncan, Angie.  And it's nice to see you again.  Can you tell us anything more about what happened?"

"Come help move the meat, and you can meet my boss.  A cop is talking to her now."  Angie shook her head and led them inside.  "Like I told Richie, all I know is, someone unbolted the compressor, ripped out the pipes and wires, and hauled them away overnight.  The fridge was still cold when I got in this morning, and we're trying to keep it shut, but with the police all over taking fingerprints and stuff, I dunno."  She shrugged.  "We got through today's lunch, but we'll have to send people somewhere else tomorrow."

When they reached the kitchen, Angie continued directly across toward the walk-in refrigerator, and Richie followed her quickly, facing away from her boss and the too-familiar police detective in the middle of the room.  MacLeod, of course, walked right up to them.

"Duncan MacLeod!" Sergeant Powell exclaimed.  "And little Richie Ryan!  What sin have I committed to deserve the pair of you on my crime scene this time?"

Richie sighed.

Angie introduced them briskly, and then grabbed a stack of old shopping bags to carry the food.  Richie went with her, happy to leave MacLeod to handle the authorities.

"This shelf first," she directed, starting on a bag.  "Then the bins.  Pack things closely, with the coldest stuff on the bottoms."

Richie complied.  "Angie, what does it mean for you if the soup kitchen has to close?"

"Out of work seventeen days before Christmas.  I counted."

"Ang--"  Richie remembered what she had said about how hard it had been for her to find even this job, with 'metalhead and motorcycle enthusiast' not making much of a resume.  And he realized that he had no idea what to say about such a loss.  Angie had worked a lot harder for the good things in her life than he had for the shot MacLeod and Tessa had given him out of the blue.

"Look, I don't want to talk about it yet, Richie, okay?  I've still got a job to do, and the food we save today feeds someone for a week."

Relieved, Richie nodded and kept filling bags.  Three trips by the two of them pretty much filled MacLeod's trunk.  As Richie closed it, the mist solidified into actual rain, and a white TV van drove up, its remote broadcast antennae barely missing the tree branches at the edges of the lot.

"Randi McFarland, KCLA news," said the small blond woman who hopped out of the passenger door.  "Hey, I know you!  Richie Ryan, right?  Where's MacLeod?"

"Inside," Richie answered.  "How did you know he's here?"

"Because he's the one who called me."  She turned to help her cameraman shoulder his equipment.  Once armed with her microphone and backed up by videotape, she unfurled a large, clear umbrella and looked around.  "Is there a sign we could use for background?  I mean, the church is fine, but something saying 'soup kitchen' would be better."

"There's a plaque next to where people line up."  Angie pointed around the corner.  "Is this really going to be on TV?"

"Five-thirty, from Seacouver all over western Washington.  We may even be able to get a national pick-up, if we make enough of the seasonal angle."

Christmas Day

"Compliments of the season from someone named Fitzcairn?" Richie relayed, his hand over the telephone mouthpiece.  "Sounds English."

MacLeod kissed Tessa's forehead, disentangled himself, and stood up to take the phone.  Soon he was offering just the occasional "yes" or "really?" or "oh, no, tell me you didn't" as the guy on the other end evidently filled in the rest.

"You can say 'hello' on the house phone, you know," Tessa said as she moved her and MacLeod's miscellaneous little stocking and shoe gifts onto the coffee table next to Richie's, then stood and stretched.  "That 'Noel and MacLeod' is only for the antique shop.  You'd have to say, 'Noel, MacLeod and Ryan,' and that's too much, isn't it?"

"Yeah, I guess."

Tessa smiled.  "Let's get breakfast on the table.  There's an egg casserole warming in the oven."

"If we're waiting for Mac to get off the phone, maybe you and I could, uh, tackle what's left of the Yule log cake in the fridge?"

"Good idea.  And I'll switch the stereo to some Christmas music composed in this century."

Our Lady of Guadalupe
December 12, 1992

"So," Richie cleared his throat as the door closed behind a customer, leaving just him and Tessa in the antiques showroom.  He dusted a spotless glass case for the third time that day.  "I take it that the shop will, uh, be closed on Christmas?"

"Oh, yes."  Tessa nodded, climbing up on a stepladder to re-hang a painting she had taken down to show the customer.  "We usually close up entirely between Duncan's birthday and New Year's.  There's just not enough drop-in traffic.  It's a good time for me to get in a lot of sketching, and Duncan likes to visit his cabin on the island."

"Okay, yeah, a little time off."  Richie spread his hands.  It was no worse than he'd expected.  "I can handle that, stay out of the way, maybe look into a part-time gig--"

"Richie!"  Tessa looked surprised.  "You don't -- do you think we'd leave you behind?"

"I don't want to get in your way."

Tessa shook her head and climbed down the ladder.  She put her hands on Richie's shoulders and leaned her forehead against his.  "We will make room for you, I promise.  And when we do get in each other's way, we will speak up.  All right?"

Richie swallowed.  "All right."

Christmas Day

While there were several presents for Richie from Tessa -- tied in sparkly foil ribbons -- and as many from MacLeod -- tucked into pre-made gift bags -- the presents from other people to the two of them meant that Richie ran out of things to open long before they did.  He stretched out on the rug next to more gifts than he'd ever received, feeling like the biggest sap this side of a Hallmark card, but too warm and full and safe to care.

"It's addressed to both of us, sweetheart."

"You open it.  They're your friends."

"They're our friends.  You open it."

"If I open it, you have to write the thank-you note."

"Well, then, give it back!"

When the gifts had dwindled down to just those from him, Richie sat back up and fetched two, handing a light but bulky newspaper-wrapped bundle to MacLeod, and a flat one to Tessa.  Richie tried to look nonchalant, and not at all like he'd been agonizing over what to give them since Halloween.  "So, uh, merry Christmas."

Tessa ripped wrapping paper, so she got into hers first.  "'Third Place Books,'" she read the handbill that Richie had wrapped between two pieces of cardboard.  "A bookstore?"

"Sort of.  They have this thing like a mall food court and free live music three nights a week.  That's the January schedule.  They've got these 'seventies nights,' and I thought, if you're not busy, I could take you to dinner and--"

"It's a date.  Thank you, Richie."

MacLeod peeled tape like he intended to use the paper again, so it took him longer.  When he did get inside his present, his eyebrows shot up.  "Lightsabers?"

"Sure!"  Richie grinned.  "It's what all the immortals will be using in the sci-fi future, right?  Better get started now!"

"I thought Star Wars was 'long, long ago'?"

"Whatever.  Here, I tried one out in the toy store."  Richie took one of the two plastic tubes and detached it from its packaging.  "You press this button here, shake it out to its full length, and press the button again -- presto!"  Richie stood up straight, clicked his heels together and pointed the yellow tube at the tree.  "On guard, fool!"

MacLeod laughed until he could hardly breathe.  As that was the effect Richie had been going for, he winked at Tessa and tried not to feel embarrassed.  MacLeod wiped his eyes with his sleeve.  "I don't know what that is, Richie, but it is not en garde."

"So show me."

Still laughing, MacLeod removed the other toy from its packaging and shook it out.  "First thing, legs apart, and bend your knees.  More.  More!  Like you're sitting down."

"I feel ridiculous."

"You should feel balanced.  When you're balanced, you're ready to move immediately in any direction."

"What do I do with the lightsaber?"

"Unless you can get your feet right, you'd be better off trading it in for Han Solo's blaster."

Now Tessa was laughing.  "You know that wasn't the end of the gifts, right?"

"Oh, right!"  Richie set down the toy and carefully carried his last present out from behind the tree.  It was as tall as he was, and about two inches thick.

"'To Tessa, Mac and Richie,'" MacLeod read the tag.

"Yep, it's for all of us.  I'll hold it up; you two do the honors -- carefully!"

They did, revealing a thin wooden frame covered in butcher paper.

"This is what you borrowed the tools for?" Tessa asked, clearly puzzled.

"Uh-huh."  Richie carried the frame cautiously around the furniture.  He leaned it against the wall of clear glass bricks in the dining room, the other side of which was, of course, their oversized shower.  "I figure you can paint it or something, Tessa, if you feel like it, but--"  When he turned around, MacLeod had crossed his arms, and Tessa had pinched the bridge of her nose.  Richie suspected both of them were blushing, but he could only really tell on Tessa.  Served them right.

"Way to go, Richie," MacLeod said.  "Top gift of the year, no question."

"No, wait, there's one more."  Tessa dug in her pocket, caught Richie's eye, and tossed him a key.

"A motorcycle key." Richie turned it over. "Wait -- my bike's key?  You got my bike out of hock?"

"It's in my workshop."

"You two are the best.  I kiss your feet, or something."  Richie spun toward the stairs down to Tessa's workspace.

"Wait!"  Tessa sighed.  "It's actually from Rebecca Lord.  She asked Duncan if there were anything she could do for you, after what her fiancé did to all of us."  Tessa took MacLeod's hand.  "People are always more complicated than they seem."

St. Lucy's Day
December 13, 1992

"I can't believe we need a steel and cement cage to hold the new refrigeration compressor," Angie whispered to Richie.  The two of them sat on bags of concrete donated by a local construction company, which they had helped to haul in this morning, and watched more experienced volunteers mix and pour it.  "Doesn't it seem like overkill?"

"At least nobody will be unbolting this one," he whispered back.

To Richie's surprise, money had turned out to be the easy part.  After Randi's broadcast, donations to replace the stolen equipment had poured in from all over.  Actually buying an industrial compressor and finding certified people to install it in compliance with building codes had taken a little longer.

"So was I right about the Christmas ski trip?" Angie asked.

"Kinda.  MacLeod owns this cabin, and they usually go there, but not until the day after Christmas."  Richie rested his arms on his knees.  "They're taking me with them."

"That's great."  She looked back at the volunteers.

After the concrete pad this morning, the new wiring would go in; then in two days, the machine itself; and the next day after that, the food would be restocked, courtesy of a nearby grocery store and a farmer's market on the east side.  The soup kitchen would be back in business one week before Christmas.  In the meantime, an out-of-service private shuttle had been rerouted to help people who needed to get to other shelters, and Angie would lose only two complete days' pay -- knock on wood.

"If you'll be around for Christmas Eve, they've got a great choir here."

"You mean, like, come to a church service?"

"Yes, like come to mass."  Angie rolled her eyes.  "They'll be thanking everyone who helped get the soup kitchen open again."

The police estimated that two people had physically stolen the compressor.  More than a hundred times that many had already played a role in putting things right.

"I'll think about it."  Richie suddenly stood up.  "I feel like I'm just holding up the wall, and we're literally sitting on the supplies.  You've clocked out, right?  Is there anything else useful you can do here today?"

"Me?  I suppose I can keep directing the strangers to the restrooms, but the signs we taped everywhere should really take care of that.  What do you have in mind?"

Richie offered a hand to help her up.  "It's the sunniest day in weeks.  How about a ride around Lake Washington on your bike?  I'll spring for gas."

"You're on!"  Angie took his hand and jumped to her feet, a smile breaking from ear to ear in the best Angie style.  Richie loved to see it.  "My leather jacket is in the next room.  Are you going to be warm enough?"

"Actually, no," Richie realized sheepishly.  "Would you mind stopping in the heights so I can grab my green coat?"

"Hey, you're buying the fuel.  Navigate away."  She almost skipped into the room with the coat rack, apparently no longer tired from hauling construction supplies.  "When are you going to get your own bike back, anyway?  Didn't you make enough on that final used car sale commission?"

Richie held open the door and followed Angie outside.  What could he say about the evil immortal who had faked that sale to snag him as a hostage against MacLeod?  Truth was always easiest to remember.  "The check bounced.  I didn't get anything from that delivery except a sleepless night and the repairs on your car -- and you've seen how well those're going."

"I don't know whether to say 'I'm sorry' or 'serves you right.'"  Angie shook her head as she handed him her passenger helmet.  "But right now I'm thinking there are more good people in the world than bad ones, and that's kind of cool, you know?"

Christmas Day

"Ho, ho, ho!  And where did that come from?" Angie asked, skipping down the wooden steps from her apartment as Richie drove up.

"Someone made good on that bounced check."  Richie pulled off his helmet.  "Sounds great, right?"

"Outstanding!  Better balance, smoother burn -- new transmission, too?"

"That's what they tell me.  Has your brother called yet?  Want to go for a ride before dark?"

"Yes, and yes.  Just let me get my stuff."

"Wait, Angie!"  Richie followed her up the stairs and into her unit.  "Mac and Tessa said that I should invite you for dinner, if your brother had called and you don't have plans.  Also, uh -- well, I have a present for you."

"Really?"  Angie sat down on the floor in the entranceway to switch her light shoes for boots.  "You didn't have to do that."

"Yeah, well, I wanted to."  He pulled a tiny gift out of his wallet and handed it to her.  As she opened it, he explained, "It's an international calling card.  Tessa told me about them.  Anyway, this one should be good for, like, twelve calls with your brother."

"Oh, Richie."  Angie looked up at him for a long moment.  Then she finished putting on her boots, and he extended a hand to help her up.

Christmas Eve
December 24, 1992

Richie saw MacLeod squeeze Tessa's hand as the priest spoke about shepherds on a hillside, and Richie tried to let the gesture reassure him.  He felt like he was in two places at once.

On one side of him in the pew was an Angie confusingly unlike the Angie he knew, in a classy black dress that covered her from neck to high heels and reminded him of things he tried really hard not to think about Tessa.  Angie had been nervous when they picked her up, still fussing with her pinned-up hair when she opened her door, but she had mellowed out when the carols started before the mass, and kept on mellowing until she achieved a kind of soft serenity that made Richie swallow hard.

On the other side of him was MacLeod, who had entered the church smiling and smooth, wishing merry Christmases to all and recalling the names of everyone he'd met during the work on the soup kitchen.  Then, just as Richie was discovering Angie could sing better than half the bands she followed, MacLeod froze and, without turning his head, began studying the stragglers joining the congregation.  MacLeod probably looked relaxed enough from a few feet away, but right next to him, Richie could tell the man was spring-loaded and ready to fire in any direction.

After they prayed the only prayer Richie knew most of the words to, everyone milled around, shaking hands and saying, "Peace be with you."  Angie kissed him on the cheek, leaving him more baffled on that side than ever.  Tessa, who also kissed him on the cheek, was looking at MacLeod with open concern, confirming Richie's alarm on the other side.

A woman in a long red coat made her way across the aisle to Tessa's end of the pew.  The woman was Asian, about Angie's height, and wore a ring on her left hand matching that on the anxious-looking man striding up behind her.  She spared Richie a glance, but then extended her right hand to MacLeod.  "Peace be with you."

"And with you."  He took her hand and held it.  He dropped his voice.  "I am Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod."

"Arima Kagami, of Shimabara."  She bowed very slightly, as if she weren't aware she was doing it.  "Must we quarrel tonight, of all nights?"

All at once, it dawned on Richie that this woman must be an immortal, and the crackling tension anticipated a duel to the death.  With all his anxiety over this first Christmas with MacLeod and Tessa, he had never imagined it could involve the Gathering, the thing that made their marvelous lives more horrible than anyone else's.

"Kagami-dono."  MacLeod released her hand, bowed more consciously than she had, and then said something Richie could not make out.  "We have no quarrel that I know of, and I wish none."

"Then a merry Christmas to us all, Duncan MacLeod."  Her eyes glistened.  "And many more."

Richie saw Tessa and the man with Kagami exchange a look of relief and understanding, before everyone hurriedly returned to their places and the priest began speaking again.  Angie seemed to have missed the byplay entirely, shaking hands with a flock of children in the row behind them, so Richie wasn't able to follow up until after mass ended and Angie had declined to join them for Tessa's desserts -- she wanted to be home in case her brother phoned.

Buckling himself into the back seat after dropping Angie off, Richie asked, "So you want to translate that, Mac?"

"What I said to Kagami-dono?"  MacLeod turned the windshield wipers to intermittent.  "I told her that her presence honored her people."

"Her people?" Tessa repeated.

"The Arima were a daimyo -- Japanese noble clan -- that converted to Christianity, and most of their people with them.  Crippling taxes and religious persecution led where they usually do.  Rebellion, siege, massacre."  MacLeod took one hand off the wheel to bring Tessa's hand to his lips.  After a moment, he briefly met Richie's eyes in the rearview mirror.  "Survivor's guilt is a special peril of immortality.  It's all too easy to build your life around what you think you owe the dead.  It's also all too easy to convince yourself you don't owe them anything.  Balance is hard."

"Wait, back up."  Richie watched MacLeod's hand return to the steering wheel.  "One thing I don't get.  Isn't it the Gathering now?  I mean, are you allowed to just walk away from a fight?"

Tessa met Richie's eyes in the rearview mirror and smirked conspiratorially.  "Yes, by all means, Duncan, do tell us what you are allowed to do."

MacLeod huffed and tried to laugh it off.  But Tessa raised her eyebrows at him, and Richie felt like he'd stumbled into an entirely different conversation.

Finally, MacLeod said, "I would have fought if she'd challenged me.  She didn't.  I've known immortals who never accepted a challenge.  They usually died fast."  He pulled into the alley behind the shop and turned off the car.  "I -- I don't know whether it's still possible to run away from a challenge now that the Gathering is here."

"Because you never run," Tessa said.

"We still have free will."  They all got out of the car.  MacLeod sat on the hood and crossed his arms.  "Sweetheart, I have to believe it's still a choice."

Richie went inside and turned on the Christmas lights while Tessa and MacLeod held each other.

Christmas Day

Even in her boots, Angie stood just below Richie's eye level.  She took a step toward him and put her hands on his chest.  She didn't seem to be wearing any make-up, but her eyes were huge and her lips red.  And when she stood on her toes and kissed him, careful and closed-mouthed, it was more exciting than the wildest thing Felicia had done.

Angie sank back on her heels, grinned ear to ear, and pointed up.  "Mistletoe.  My roommate hung it."

"Mistletoe, huh?" Richie didn't look up.

When Angie kissed him the second time, she was laughing, and that was even better.




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