This Connor story was inspired by the song, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." I also feel obliged to mention that Carmel MacPherson got me thinking along these lines when she challenged the DFW's to write a Duncan/Tessa story based on song lyrics. Duncan didn't want to play that game, but Connor did, so who was I to argue?

Standard disclaimers apply. I don't own and didn't create the characters of Connor MacLeod or Duncan MacLeod, nor do I have any rights to the Highlander universe. I'm just dallying there a bit with them--without permission, of course. No profits have been made (by me anyway), and no pixels were harmed in the writing of this story.

I also borrowed the song lyrics without permission.

The characters whose names you don't recognize are mine, however, so please don't take them anywhere without checking with me first.

Part 1

Weary and drained as he always was after a Quickening, Connor MacLeod slogged through two inches of dingy grey slush on the way back to his loft in lower Manhattan.

It was still snowing - though it was hardly fair to call this wet sloppy precipitation snow. Barely frozen globs of it dribbled from his hair, under the collar of his coat, then down his back like so many cold icy snakes, and added to his already foul mood.

He hadn't wanted to fight Cole Slater, not tonight anyway, but Slater had insisted. The brash and cocky man had been young for an Immortal - barely one hundred, if Connor's instincts were on target. And they usually were.

They'd had no quarrel. No prior run-ins. The late Mr. Slater had simply been out head-hunting, and he'd thought adding Connor MacLeod's head to his collection a splendid idea.

Except, he'd thought wrong.

Perhaps that was the way The Game was meant to be played, Connor mused as he walked down Broadway, but tonight he simply hadn't been in the mood. For over four hundred years he'd lived by the credo, There can be only one, but occasionally he grew bone-tired of the fighting ... and the killing that ensued. Sometimes, he just wanted to be left alone.

He shook his head, then breathed out his dissatisfaction with a snort of humorless laughter. "Dangerous thinking, old man," he growled.

Without waiting for the "walk," sign to flash permission, Connor hurried across Broadway just south of Canal, then turned down Walker.

A brick church, so dingy with years of accumulated soot that one could hardly guess the original color, stood in the middle of the next block. Like so many in the city, it stood toe to toe with the sidewalk, challenging the encroachment of the secular buildings around it. As Connor passed by, the doors opened without warning and a gaggle of people spilled out into the night.

Bundled up in scarves and colorful hats, they were well and heartily into the second chorus of Joy to the World. They sang in three part harmony while the leader of their little band conducted his mini-choir - walking backwards down the three steps. He stumbled on the last one, and right into Connor.

"Hey!" Connor snarled. "Watch it!"

The young man smiled as he held up his hands in a gesture of apology. "Sorry man, I didn't see you," he said, reaching out to touch Connor's arm. "Are you all right?"

Connor sidestepped the man's gesture of comfort, then pulled the collar of his rain coat tighter.

Letting his arm drop to his side, the man continued to smile despite the rebuff. "Merry Christmas!" he said.

"Christmas is a humbug," Connor muttered, then he hustled off down the street before the man could try to infect him with his Christmas cheer. "A humbug!" he repeated, just on principle.

Today was four days before Christmas, and he suspected that was the real reason he found himself mired in this deeply morose bog. Christmas often had that effect on him. It reminded him of his youth--a youth so long past that it often felt like it had happened to someone else. And it reminded him of the joy-filled holidays he'd spent with Heather. It taunted him and insisted on reminding him just how lonely an Immortal's life could be.

And he hated it. Oh, not the loneliness. He'd come to accept that, but he hated the sentimental spirit of the season that tried to hoodwink him into feeling sorry for himself. Self-pity was a dangerous and slippery emotion that could get an Immortal killed. Even if he wanted to wallow in it--which he didn't--he couldn't afford to.

As he approached his shop, he swallowed the uninvited feelings, hammered them until they were flat and lifeless, then he buried them in a dark corner of his soul. But even after he closed the shop door behind him, he could still hear their voices mocking him.

No wonder he was in a bad mood. "Humbug," he grumbled again, simply because saying it out loud stilled the persistent voices if only for a moment. And because right now he identified completely with Ebenezer Scrooge's sentiments--he had no time to waste celebrating what was simply another day among many.

Giving his eyes a moment to adjust to the dark interior, he inhaled deeply. The musty smell of a store filled with old and mostly rare books told him he was home. It had a quieting effect on his troubled soul, and he relaxed somewhat as he strode through a narrow aisle between the shelves to his office at the back.

When he left New York for London thirteen years ago, he'd given the antique shop to Rachel, his ward and good friend. He'd been in New York for a decade or two back then, and it had been well past time to leave. Now he had returned--even though it was really too soon to do so--because he couldn't resist the magnetic lure of the city's raw energy.

For some inexplicable reason New York City fit him like a second skin. It was noisy and pulsing with life. A man had to be alert in this city. He couldn't be complacent or lazy. And the inhabitants had a natural tendency to look the other way when strange things happened--a godsend for an Immortal coping with a Quickening's destructive power.

He stopped before a roll-top desk that hugged the right wall of the tiny cluttered office. A bundle of mail lay in the center where he'd tossed it this afternoon before leaving to meet Slater. Loosening his coat, he withdrew his sword, laid it on the desk, then picked up the thick packet.

Judging by the top half dozen or so envelopes, it didn't appear to contain anything of real interest. He tossed the bills in the slots at the back of the desk and the advertisements in the wastepaper basket. As he worked through the pile, one item, near the bottom, but more colorful than the rest, snagged his attention. He pulled it out.

A Santa sitting atop a bright red toy-filled sleigh smiled up at him from the front of the postcard. He almost tossed it in with the advertisements, but some instinct made him turn it over.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas, was written across the left side in a an exuberant scrawl.

Let your heart be light, followed. And the last of the three lines read, From now on, our troubles will be out of sight. It was unsigned, but postmarked -Ludlow, Vermont.

"Humph!" he breathed out with a snort, yet an icy apprehension crept down his spine--as real and as cold as the slushy snow that had slipped under his coat collar earlier.

The postcard was addressed to Connor MacLeod--not Edward Wilson, the name he'd been using for the past year. No one but Duncan knew that he'd returned to New York - not even Rachel. No one ...except perhaps...he spat out a few Gaelic curses--then added one in English just for good measure...those damned Watchers.

If those meddlesome Watchers had leaked his new identity there'd be hell to pay. He didn't care that Duncan called one of them a good friend. Didn't listen when Duncan tried to convince him that they served a purpose. He didn't like being Watched. Not one minute. Not even one second.

He fired the offending piece of cardboard into the wastebasket, then dumped the rest of the mail on the desk. He could deal with it in the morning. But as he retrieved his sword, then headed for the door at the back of the office--the one that led to the freight elevator--an irresistible urge rippled through him.

Like a Siren singing to lure an ancient mariner to his death, that blasted postcard called to him, and the damned song was stuck in his head. "Have yourself a merry little Christmas..."

He fought against it for a moment, but the urge was too strong. Muttering another string of curses in three different languages--just for variety--Connor snatched the card out of the clutches of the trash can. He slammed the elevator gate down with more force than was necessary, then snapped his finger against the card all the way to the sixth floor.

"Have yourself a merry little Christmas," he growled as he stuck a push pin right through Santa's beard into the square of cork mounted next to his refrigerator.

* * * *

December 22 burst forth with a blare of bright sunshine and a bold blue sky. The air was cold, yet crisp and clean--for the city anyway. It was one of those rare winter days when all the elements converged in an attempt at perfection. But it didn't brighten Connor's mood--not even a crumb.

He had taken a moment to speculate on the postcard while he poured himself a glass of orange juice that morning, however, since there was nothing he could do about it, he'd shoved it into the back of his mind--just to the left of the barely breathing pile of self-pity he'd dumped there last night. By noon he'd nearly forgotten both.

A phone call from a good customer, who was looking for a particular book, had him hunkered down in front of one of the shelves when the bell over the door jangled. He didn't bother to look up. Mrs. Lopez, his capable assistant, could handle it.

"Hello, Ben," she chimed in a deeply resonant voice that still contained a shimmer of accent, even though she'd left her native Puerto Rico as a child. "Isn't it a gorgeous day?"

Though she saw him at least four or five times a week, one would think she hadn't seen the mailman for years, Connor thought, as he finally spied the book he was searching for.

Most times he didn't mind the plump fiftyish widow's cheery nature - though he could certainly do without the come-hither looks she frequently threw in his direction--but today she was getting on his last nerve. All morning, she kept babbling on about her holiday plans and dropping broad hints that he was welcome to join her and her family if he had no plans of his own--which. of course, he didn't.

To forestall an outright invitation, he'd mentioned that his cousin, Duncan, might fly in from Seacouver. It was a convenient lie, but Serafina Lopez wanted all the details. Details he lacked the energy to conjure up. All morning, he had hoped that something else would distract her. The mailman's timely arrival would have to suffice.

Connor pulled the book from the shelf, then turned to beat a fast retreat to his office--but he wasn't fast enough.

"Mornin' Mr. Wilson," Ben called out. "Merry Christmas!"

Pretending to be totally engrossed in the leather bound book, Connor grunted. Without turning around, he waved his hand--an acknowledgment and a dismissal all wrapped up in one gesture. It didn't work. The mailman hurried after him.

"Here's your mail," he said. "And a little something to wish you a Merry Christmas."

As he stopped walking, Connor drew a deep breath. It seemed as though the entire world was conspiring to push Christmas at him whether he wanted it or not. Judging by the sound of the footfalls behind him, the mailman had gotten closer to his back than Connor deemed comfortable. With a scowl on his face, he turned on his heel to confront the invader of his personal territory.

Smiling brightly, the mailman handed him the mail and a small clutch of something wrapped in red cellophane and tied with a green curly ribbon. On closer examination, Connor saw it contained cookies.

With some effort, he forced his mouth into a smile as he tucked the book under his arm, then accepted Ben's offering. "Ehr... thanks," he mumbled.

"My wife goes on a baking binge every year," the mailman said with a self-conscious shrug. "I can't eat 'em all, or I'll be as big as a house--so I pass 'em out to the folks on my route."

"How nice," Connor replied, without much vigor. He wondered if the mailman was hinting for a gift in return or merely infected with the spirit of the season. Infected, he decided, when Ben finally touched the brim of his hat in a salute, then turned away.

"Do you have time for a cup of coffee, Ben?" Mrs. Lopez asked.

Inwardly, Connor groaned. But at least Serafina would be busy with the mailman which gave him the opportunity to escape to his office. He did precisely that before they could try persuading him to join them.

He dropped the cookies and the book on the desk, then pulled the elastic band off the bundle of mail. A smattering of bright color about three pieces down in the stack of mostly white envelopes had snagged his attention when Ben first handed it to him. With the faint sound of alarm bells sounding in his head, he extracted it from the pack.

A smiling and goofy-looking reindeer with Christmas lights strewn on its antlers decorated the front of yet another postcard. Connor turned it over.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it began - just like the other one.

The second line read, Make the Yuletide gay, and was followed by a third which read, From now on our troubles will be miles away.

This card was also unsigned, postmarked Ludlow, Vermont, and addressed to Connor MacLeod.

"I don't know about my troubles," Connor muttered as he studied the handwriting in an attempt to learn the identity of the sender. "But yours will be on their way home when I find out who you are."

"Bad news?" Mrs. Lopez asked from the doorway.

He hadn't even heard her approach - not a good sign.

"Do you want something?" he snapped.

"Just to see if you wanted anything for lunch," she said with good cheer, undeterred by his icy response. "I'm going over to Dean's Deli, and I thought you might like me to bring you back a sandwich or something."

Feeling every bit as old as the retired history professor he was pretending to be--with the help of some grey hair dye and a little stage makeup--Connor dropped down into the hard oak chair in front of the desk. "I'm not hungry," he said, then as a twinge of guilt pricked his conscience, he added, "...but, thanks."

Mrs. Lopez didn't budge. When he looked up, she was still standing in the doorway. She lifted one dark eyebrow as she crossed her arms over her ample chest. "Somebody's in a bad mood," she said.

"You probably have a lot to do," he said, ignoring her comment. "Take tomorrow and Christmas Eve off."

If these postcards were from another Immortal bent on driving him nuts before issuing a challenge, he'd be better off with no distractions. And Mrs. Lopez would be better off safely away from him.

"With pay?" she asked in an incredulous tone as she dropped her arms to her sides.

"Yes, yes, of course," Connor answered. Anxious to have her gone, he picked up the rest of the mail, then began to sort through it.

"But what about the Christmas rush? You'll be so busy," she said, still planted in the doorway.

Obviously it was going to take more than the promise of two days off with pay to get rid of her. Connor got up, then crossed the room to her side. "This isn't Macy's," he said with the glimmer of a smile. "I'll be fine. In fact, take the rest of today off too."

He cupped her elbow in his hand and attempted to tow her toward the front of the shop. The task was more difficult than leading a mule with its hooves dug in. The woman was simply unmovable--unless he exerted more force - which he really didn't want to do. He just wanted her out of the way.

"Why are you trying to get rid of me?" she asked, eyeing him suspiciously.

"I'm not," he lied, putting his hands on her shoulders. "Go... be with your family ...have a nice holiday."

While she was digesting this, he managed to turn her around and nudge her toward the front of the shop. He grabbed her hat from the coat rack, then settled it on her head. Releasing her, he took her coat and held it open for her.

"I smell a rat," she said, "a big rat." But she slipped her arms into the coat. He was making progress.

"What are you up to?" she asked, as she adjusted the red velvet hat he'd just plunked on top of her head.

"Nothing," he replied, opening the door. "Go. Enjoy your holiday."

She stood in the open doorway, squinting at him for a moment, then she smiled. "You're a sly one," she said, wagging her finger at him. "But you can't fool me. That card you were reading was from an old girlfriend, wasn't it? You're expecting company, aren't you?"

Apparently, if she couldn't have him, she wanted to play a part in the matchmaking. "Yes," he lied, giving her another nudge. "My cousin, Duncan, from Seacouver. Now go."

Without warning she reached up and kissed him on the cheek. "Well, have a nice visit with...your...ah-cousin, Duncan," she said with a knowing sparkle in her brown eyes. "And a very Merry Christmas."

He removed her hands from his neck as gently as he could considering how frustrated he felt at the moment. "Go," he said again. "Before I change my mind." Not that there was any chance of that.

She smiled, waved, then headed down the street. Connor closed the door behind him. Leaning against it he let his breath out in a sigh of relief. Now he could concentrate on the matter at hand.

Part 2

December 23 brought clouds and a cold steady rain - dampening spirits and Christmas shoppers alike. It also brought Connor another postcard.

This one had a picture of forest creatures - squirrels, raccoons, rabbits, a deer and a fox - all gathered around a snow-covered and berry-bedecked tree in the center of a clearing. The message continued the song.

Once again as in olden days, it read. Happy golden days of yore ...

If there was a clue in these lyrics, Connor was damned if he could figure it out. Faithful friends who are dear to us...

Who? What faithful friends? Most of his friends were dead, or didn't know where he was. Except possibly Duncan, and he couldn't believe that Duncan was behind this foolishness. It simply didn't ring true.

Only one thing was certain--whoever sent the cards was coming. To him or for him - he had no way of knowing. But the threat was in the last line. Will be near to us once more, and in the postmark--which was no longer Ludlow, Vermont. This one was postmarked Hartford, Connecticut. Whoever was sending these cards was moving closer.

He spent the better part of the morning sifting through his memories for friend and foe alike, but mostly he came up empty. Still his deeply rooted instincts told him that the perpetrator of this bizarre scheme had to be Immortal.

He'd cut all his mortal ties when he left London. He'd simply vanished without a trace. To avoid the danger that someone might recognize him, remember him from before, he'd made very few new contacts in New York.

Mrs. Lopez, Ben the mailman, a few shopkeepers, a customer or two - these were the mortals he knew now. He couldn't imagine any of them traveling all the way to Vermont in order to send these postcards. He couldn't think of one reason why they'd even arrange to have them sent.

No--the person behind this plot was an Immortal - he felt sure of it. So who was it?

He made a list of all the Immortal friends and enemies he could possibly think of - even those he suspected were dead. The column of enemies contained many more entries than the one he'd labeled friends, so he started studying the short list, by crossing off Duncan's name.

Though he really wasn't sure where Duncan was, he doubted his clansman and former student was in Ludlow, Vermont. He didn't know why he thought that--he just did. And he really didn't think Duncan would pull such a prank either.

More likely it was someone who didn't know him very well--someone he hadn't seen in years. Someone like Jack Blackthorne, perhaps, he thought doodling a circle around the second name on the list.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Blackthorne. Didn't know if Big Jack was even still alive. But the eight years he'd spent in Port Royale, Jamaica stood out in his memories like bright signal flags snapping in a brisk wind against a sullen grey sky. He'd felt vigorously alive, living elbow to elbow with the "Brethren of the Coast." More alive than he'd felt in recent times, anyway.

Though he did have a ship or two back then, and though he had operated occasionally under letters of marque as a privateer, Connor had considered himself more of a trader than a pirate. However, that trading brought him in constant contact with those who did sail under the black flag - those like Big Jack Blackthorne.

Big Jack had larceny wrapped around a heart that was as big as he was. And he was well over six foot tall and close to, if not, over 300 pounds. Robbery on the high seas was a game to him and one he heartily enjoyed, but unlike most of his "Brethren," Jack took particular care that his victims were left unharmed - relieved of all their valuables, of course, but as unharmed physically as he could arrange.

Big Jack also had a quite soft spot for the fairer sex and an unquenchable taste for rum - which was how he and Connor met.

In December of 1684, Connor had been having a quiet pint of ale in the Ram's Head tavern when a fight broke out. Nothing much unusual in that - except that this fight flared up because Big Jack chose to defend the honor of a wench who hadn't had any virtue worth defending since she was about twelve years old. But that didn't matter one whit to Jack. He'd deemed Molly Becket a lady who needed his help--and that did matter.

The moment Big Jack had entered the tavern, Connor had known he was Immortal, of course. They'd sought one another out and made their acknowledgments with a nod of a head, then Blackthorne had smiled and lifted his tankard to signal that he wasn't hunting heads this day.

Connor had returned the salute, but kept an eye on him, while he continued to enjoy his ale--that is, he did until Big Jack appointed himself Molly's champion.

Not one to cower in the corner under an overturned table when a fight came rolling his way, Connor soon found himself in the thick of the fray--and back to back with Big Jack.

"Har, har, ...that's the way, laddie," Big Jack's booming voice clobbered his ears as Connor clobbered his current opponent's thick head with the hilt of his sword. "Our kind gots to stick together, eh?"

Connor didn't agree with Big Jack's notion of Immortal brotherhood, but he wasn't exactly in a position to argue at the moment.

Afterwards Big Jack clapped him on the back with a friendly blow--but one that sent him nearly sprawling across the room just the same-then he ordered up a round of drinks for the house. Once he set Connor's table back up on its legs, he pushed Connor into a chair, then sat across from him.

Big Jack made himself a hard man to dislike, so he and Connor quickly became steadfast friends and sometime business partners. When an earthquake destroyed Port Royale in 1692, they were both drowned in the ensuing tidal wave. The reign of the town as king of the pirate conclaves came to an abrupt end...and so did their friendship, for reasons neither of them could be pressed to explain.

Connor had run across Big Jack once or twice after that, but they'd both moved on--become different people than they were then, and somehow it just wasn't the same.

With the memories of those years still buffeting him like winds across time, Connor crossed Big Jack's name off the list. The rascally pirate simply wasn't the postcard type, he thought with a smile at the fond recollection.

There were three women's names on the list. The first two--Cierdwyn and Amanda--he'd met through Duncan. While he didn't consider them close friends, they weren't enemies either. But they were Duncan's friends, so he trusted that they wouldn't challenge him unless he gave them good reason.

Both women knew they would have to answer to a very righteous Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod in the unlikely event that he lost such a challenge.

The third name brought a smile to his lips as he doodled a star next to her name--Abiageal Flynn.

He never knew if that was her real name. Never knew much about her at all. She came and went from his life like a will-o'-the-wisp or a leaf on the wind for a period of about ten years - then she simply vanished and he never saw her again.

Well, to be honest, he'd been the one to disappear. The Kurgan had come to London, hunting him as usual. After a long bloody battle, Connor had run him through with his sword, but before he could finish the job, the local constabulary arrived - in untimely fashion of course. They promptly arrested him for murder and locked him up in Newgate.

Abby had helped him escape, and that was the last time he'd seen her - waving to him from the quay as his ship sailed for America.

"You've had all of the fun and most of the good women," Connor had told Duncan on more than one occasion - but it wasn't entirely true.

Though Duncan usually attracted women as easily as a pot of honey attracts flies, and though he had expressed a definite interest, he hadn't had Abiageal Flynn.

"I seem to remember that girl in London," Duncan had said to him while they both prepared to meet Slan Quince. "The redhead ... healthy girl," he'd added with a sly grin.

Her red hair and size of her breasts, those had been the first of Abby Flynn's charms that Duncan had noticed, but as Connor tapped his pen next to her name, he remembered her eyes.

They were the first thing he'd noticed about her. Bright green eyes that were neither cold nor welcoming. The second thing he'd noticed was the gleam of her sword in the moonlight.

* * * *

December 24, 1846.

As the power of the Quickening ebbed away, Connor felt a disturbingly familiar thrum deep within him. Familiar because he'd been alerted to danger by that thrum for over three hundred years, and disturbing because he should no longer feel an Immortal presence emanating from the headless corpse before him.

This warning voice could mean only one thing - there was another Immortal within sensing range. Bad news when one was still drained from a Quickening, like he was at the moment.

An Immortal with a code of honor or a sense of fair play would leave another of their kind alone at such at time, but there were others who sought out these sterling opportunities. They'd hide in the shadows, waiting to pounce on a weakened opponent. In his life, Connor had met both kinds, and he had no stomach to meet the latter tonight.

"Show yourself," he ordered, as he tried to close balking fingers around the hilt of his sword.

The narrow alley was lit only by a shaft of moonlight that spilled down the center. No sound met his ears. No movement caught his eye. Using the blade as a brace, he pushed himself to his feet.

"Who are you?" he called out in a voice that sounded much thinner than he wanted. "Come out and face me."

A faint scuffling came from a pile of wooden crates and barrels on his left. He swept a glance across the width of the alley, then focused on the pile. Holding his sword in both hands before him, he took a step closer, then listened again.

Without warning, one of the barrels toppled from the pile. Connor jumped back to avoid being hit as it rolled toward him. A shadowy figure followed it, then stepped sideways into the stream of moonlight.

The silvery beam caught a flash of green eyes. Fierce eyes with serious intent. And it also caught the gleaming blade of a broadsword.

"I'll fight you, if I must," the figure said in a deep, but decidedly female voice. "But I'd just as soon not--not tonight. I suggest you be on yer way."

An inner voice set off alarm bells that urged Connor to heed her suggestion. He'd learned a long time ago - and the hard way--that female Immortals often survived because they quickly seized an advantage whenever they found one waiting in their paths. Not that he could blame them--one did what one had to do. Still he didn't want to fall victim to such tactics.

The Quickening must have addled his brain while it sapped his strength, because he didn't move. Didn't take her advice. Of course, the fact that she was blocking the only way out of the alley did cross his mind, so maybe he wasn't quite as addled as he thought.

"If you're not looking for a fight, why were you hiding there?" he asked, stalling while he assessed his situation.

Perhaps he was leaping to rash conclusions, he thought, measuring the distance between them - and the narrow space between her and the building on his right.

Perhaps he wasn't facing a woman, after all. The other Immortal was wearing men's clothing--and raggedy clothing at that. The voice - slightly rough, but neither deep, nor high--could also belong to a young boy. Narrowing his eyes, Connor studied the figure before him. Studied the stance and the grip on the blade. Definitely a woman, he decided.

"I wasn't 'iding, mate," she said. A ripple of laughter danced through her voice. "... I was sleeping. You've been 'acking about in my bedroom!"

"B-bedroom?" he stammered. What bedroom? What was she talking about? Caught up in his mental research, Connor realized he hadn't been paying enough attention. Not good - not good at all.

He shook his head to clear away the thick mist the Quickening had left behind. "What are you talking about, woman?" he snapped.

"This 'ere's my alley, I saw it first," she said, parking her left fist on her hip. "You and your 'eadless friend there disturbed me beauty rest."

She indicated Rasuli's lifeless body with the point of her blade, then shook her head as she lowered it to her side. Still, she held the sword ready to lift in a flash if he made the wrong move. "Now go on with you ... afore I change me mind about lettin' you go."

Sweeping her sword toward the mouth of the alley, she stepped back to give him a wider, more comfortable space to pass.

Letting him go? Part of him balked at the affront to his ego. She actually thought she was letting him go? Why he could beat this nervy little snip with one hand tied behind his back! Humph!

Then reason took hold and reminded him that he'd already had one fight tonight and one Quickening. He really didn't need another--especially one chosen merely to satisfy his ego.

He lifted his katana in a salute as he hurried past her. "We'll meet again," he promised adding a clear threat to his tone.

She swept a glance from his feet to his face, then grinned broadly. "I 'ope so, cap'n," she said, then she chuckled before returning his salute. "I sincerely 'ope so!"

To make sure she wasn't going to attack him from behind, Connor gave her a brief backward glance as he hurried from the alley.

She stood with both hands on her hips, and her head was cocked to one side as she watched him leave. Though it was hard to tell in the dim light, he could have sworn she was grinning.

"Damned impudent tart," he muttered to soothe his wounded ego, then he tromped off down the block. He wanted to put as much distance between them as he could ... and as fast as he could.

Part 3

December 24, 1846.

He was half-way through the next block, when her presence slowly faded. Then, with a chattering hum, he felt it return. He stopped, did an about face, and watched her scurry after him with a sack slung over her shoulder. A large sack and heavy by the looks of it. She managed it easily, though, so she was probably stronger than she looked.

"Change your mind?" he asked, reaching inside his coat to touch his sword.

"No," she said, as she stopped a sword's distance away.

She paused a moment to catch her breath, then with both hands clearly holding the sack - not on her sword - she approached him cautiously. "I say, cap'n you wouldn't have a tuppence to spare... a shilling, perhaps. I'm not begging mind, you - just a loan to tide me over."

Without thinking, Connor reached in his pocket and touched the few coins that clinked together in his pocket - all he had until pay day. "Do I look like the Bank of England?" he parried, more irritated with himself and his circumstances than with her.

"No, mate, I guess you don't," she said with a sad smile as her gaze took in his threadbare coat and the sorry state of his shoes.

She'd called him mate again. For awhile he'd been cap'n. Great! Demoted in the eyes of a street urchin. Could his luck get any worse?

In his long life, he'd been rich, and he'd been poor - and more often somewhere between the two. When his ship, the Mary Clare, had sunk in a storm off the Irish coast, she'd taken all hands--including his. She'd also taken his entire fortune with her to the bottom of the sea. So at the moment he was just a notch above destitute--and a very shaky notch, at that.

Having lost his taste for life at sea--temporarily, anyway--he'd taken a clerk's position with an importing establishment. Finch and Addison was a thriving business, and he hoped to make some good contacts there, but the owner was as stingy and mean-spirited as the character, Scrooge, in that story Charles Dickens wrote a few years back. Connor really hated how easily he'd fallen into the role of Bob Cratchett.

The girl, woman--whatever she was--stood before him shifting her weight from foot to foot. Between her clothes and the layer of street grime she wore, he couldn't begin to guess her age.

She had red hair, though. Even in the dim light of the street lamp he could see that. Great curling clumps of it spiraled over her forehead, refusing to be restrained by the dark stocking cap she had pulled over them.

"Go away," he ordered, then he turned on his heel and continued his journey down the street.

Footfalls, behind him, told him that she hadn't heeded his order.

Instead, she caught up to him, then walked beside him matching him stride for stride.

"Could you spare a ha'penny, then?" she asked. "After all, you owe me."

That brought him up short. What the devil did she mean--he owed her? Owed her for what? "You crazy twit ... I don't even know you!" he shouted.

"Well, thanks to you, I got no place to sleep, tonight," she said. "You left a bloody 'headless corpse back there. After all the ruckus, I'll soon have a bleedin' pack of bobbies crawlin' all over the place. And me with a sword on me person ... what do you suppose they'll think about that?"

Connor almost smiled. Not at her predicament or her righteous indignation--but at the fact that her accent kept slipping. She might fool some, but over the years he'd developed an ear for such things. He wondered who she was, where she had been.

"There are lots of alleys in London," he said, studying her for a moment. "Find another." Then he turned and resumed walking down the street.

She followed him. "Ain't no other quite like that one," she said.

He quickened his pace, and so did she.

"You see mate, that there alley 'as a bake shop right next to it. The brick wall is all nice and warm from the ovens."

As Connor stopped at the door of the Bull and Finch pub, it began to snow. He shook off a faint ripple of guilt. It wasn't his fault that fool Rasuli picked that accursed alley for their battle. And it certainly wasn't his fault that this woman's streak of luck was worse than his own.

"Sorry," he said, only half meaning it. "I can't help."

He tugged on the rough iron door handle, then entered the pub. Inside, he waited a moment, expecting her to follow him.

She didn't.

He let his held breath out in a faint sigh, then nodded to the barman before taking a seat a table against the wall.

It was late and Christmas Eve as well, so the pub was nearly empty. They'd be closing up soon, but Connor figured he still had time for a bowl of stew and a tankard of ale. He fingered the coins in his pocket again, wishing there was enough for a dram of whiskey as well. There wasn't, but he'd known that already.

To make things worse, Friday--tomorrow--was payday. Tomorrow was also Christmas day - which meant he had to make these few coins last until Monday.

"What'll you 'ave, mate?" the pub keeper asked, wiping his hands on a stained apron.

"Stew, if you have any left," Connor said.

"We might," the burly man answered with a grunt. "I'll go check."

"And an ale," Connor said to the pub keeper's back as the man ambled off toward the kitchen.

While he waited, Connor loosened his coat, but he didn't remove it. Despite the fire that glowed in a wood stove across the room, it was barely warmer in the pub than it had been outside. As he drummed his fingers on the table, he realized that the sensation triggered by the presence of another Immortal still hummed around him. He glanced up at the window of the pub, then frowned.

He couldn't see the girl, but he knew she was still there, nonetheless. "Damn her anyway," he muttered. Why couldn't she leave well enough alone?

As Connor stood up, he wondered what was keeping the pub keeper. He threw a quick glance in the direction of the kitchen, then he crossed the room and yanked the door open. The girl sat on the sidewalk to the left of the door. She slouched against her pack, and her arms were crossed over her bent knees.

"Go away," Connor snarled at her.

"You're not boss of the street" she said, lifting her chin into a defiant angle. "I can sit anywhere I like."

"Grrr," Connor growled, but he turned abruptly, then went back inside. He slammed the door shut behind him, then stomped back to the table just as the pub keeper returned.

The bowl the man carried was cracked, but steam spiraled up from it. In his other hand he held a small plate with a hunk of bread. Without a word, he spun both onto the table, then shuffled across to the bar for the ale.

Connor picked up the spoon and reached for the bread. It was stale, but it would have to do.

"That'll be three pence, mate," the barman said as he set a tankard down next to the soup bowl.

Connor dropped the bread, then pulled the handful of coins from his coat pocket. He dropped half of them into the man's beefy hand, then returned the rest to the safety of his pocket.

Inhaling deeply, he shook his head as he picked up the spoon again. Three days until Monday. Those few coins had to last him until Monday. He took the bread in his other hand, dunked it in the soup to soften it, then he began to eat.

By the time he'd scooped four spoonfuls of soup into his mouth, the girl's presence began to nettle him. Cheeky bit of baggage! What did she want anyway?

Just something to eat, same as you, a voice whispered from deep within him. Willing it to be silent, he closed his eyes, then he dropped the spoon back into the bowl and looked at the window.

She was standing now. With one hand pressed against the small square of glass, she watched him. Perhaps she thought to prick his conscience. Or perhaps she planned to rob him when he left.

Once again, he got up and went to the door. "What do you think you're doing?" he snapped.

"Thinkin' cap'n," she answered. "Just thinkin'"

"Well, think someplace else!" he said, unimpressed that she'd promoted him back to cap'n again.

"Got no place else to go," she said with a shrug and a smile, then she sank down to sit on the sidewalk again.

Frustration seethed and roiled within him. What was he to do with her? He could hustle her off, but he couldn't stop her from returning. He could beat her senseless or take her head, but she hadn't done him any harm.

Right after the Quickening, she'd had him at a distinct disadvantage, and yet she'd not taken the opportunity to kill or rob him. She'd let him go on his way without even a challenge.

Snow was falling heavier now. A thin layer covered her knit cap and clung to her red curls, plastering them to her forehead. "Why don't you see if Rasuli has any money," he said with a snorted laugh, tipping his head in the direction of the alley. "He doesn't need it anymore."

Brushing the snow off her clothes, the girl stood again. "Already thought of that," she said with a chuckle. "Poor bloke was worse off than either of us--unless, of course, 'e's got a fortune in gold stashed somewhere. Didn't have a farthing on 'im. Only thing 'he 'ad worth takin' was this." She reached in her pocket, then pulled out a watch.

The crystal was cracked and it wasn't even gold. She could probably get a few pence for it, but she'd likely have to wait until Monday.

Against his better judgment, Connor opened the pub door, then stood back. "Come on," he said, tilting his head toward the interior.

The girl hesitated. "But I 'aven't any ..."

"Come inside, before you catch your death," he said, softening his gruff tone with the shadow of a smile.

"Like it would make a difference to the likes of me," she said, bending to retrieve her sack.

"Not a pleasant way to die," he mumbled as she scooted past him.

"Don't know of any that are," she said, tossing him a smile over her shoulder. "Pleasant ... that is."

Connor grunted as he indicated that she should sit with a wave of his hand. When she did, he pushed the remains of his stew across the table to her.

"Oh no ... I couldn't," she protested.

He picked up the small piece of bread that remained, then considered it for a moment. "Eat," he said, before popping it into his mouth.

She wasted no more time arguing. Shoveling the rest of the thick stew into her mouth, she finished it in no time, then she ran her finger around the bowl to scoop up the last of it.

"What's your name?" he asked without know why he wanted to know.

Smiling around her forefinger, she pulled it out of her mouth, then swiped her hand across the front of her tattered coat. She held the hand out to him. "Abiageal Flynn," she said. "But you can call me, Abby."

Reluctantly, he took her hand. "Where do you come from Abiageal Flynn?" he asked, keeping the situation on a less familiar level than calling her Abby would have taken them.

Dabbing her finger back into the bowl again, she shrugged. "Lots of places."

Connor chuckled as he shook his head and conceded her a few points. That was the exact answer he would have given to such a question.

"So who are you, when you're at home?" she asked.

He could have told her he was William Rawlings--the name he'd been using in his current life--but he didn't. "Connor MacLeod," he answered, surprising himself with the admission.

He might have to face her over crossed swords someday, he reasoned. She had a right to know who was about to take her head.

"Well, Connor MacLeod," she said, holding out her hand as a lady might, with her fingers limply bent. "I'm pleased to make the acquaintance of such a right kind gentleman."

"I'm not," he said, ignoring her hand. It wouldn't do to get too friendly.

"Kind, or a gentleman," she asked with a grin.

"Neither," he answered.

"That's good," she said. Lifting his tankard of ale, she took a long drink, then she wiped her mouth on her sleeve before setting it down again. "'Cause I'm certainly not a lady."

Part Four

"Abiageal Flynn," Connor mused, considering his list once more.

He hadn't heard from Abby, or of her, for over 140 years. Though she'd had a strong survival streak, she'd most likely fallen victim to a more skilled Immortal somewhere along the way. Knowing how much she'd loved teasing and tormenting him, he couldn't believe that she'd resisted doing so for all these years. She must be dead, he thought, with a heavy sigh as he finally crossed her name off his list.

There were three more names left in the friends column.

Though he hadn't seen the Baron since 1690 or '91, Connor knew Robert de Valicourt was still alive. Like Jack Blackthorne, The Bloody Baron, had also been one of the Brethren of the Coast back in his Port Royale days. The three boon companions had shared many a pint, and argued over many a wench in the pubs and taverns that lined the streets of the bustling seaport.

Robert had returned to Paris soon after the earthquake, then he married a female Immortal. As far as Connor knew, they were still together. They'd sent invitations to their anniversary celebrations every 100 years, but for some unknown reason, he'd never had an inclination to go.

He shook his head as he shook off the mantel of memories. He'd been so young back then--barely over 150. He'd been more lighthearted and fun-loving--not burdened down by the rigors of the Game, like he was now. And he'd been a fool. Too trusting. Too open.

Such folly could get an Immortal killed.

Two more names to consider, then he'd run down the list of enemies.

Connor had last seen Leonardo Librandi in 1764, but he'd seen his paintings hanging in galleries and sold at auction now and then, so he knew the great painter was still alive. Of course the signatures on the paintings were different every 50 years or so, but Leonardo's skilled use of light and color were always easy for a friend to spot.

The Immortal artist was most likely holed up in some villa on the Mediterranean with his oils, his canvases and a woman, or two, or, three or four. Connor smiled at the picture that thought conjured up--and at the fond memories as well.

Though Leonardo was skilled enough with a sword to keep his head, he was one of those Immortals who hated playing the Game. "I'll wait until the last, old friend," he'd often said, while waving a glass of red wine in Connor's face. "Then I'll surrender my head to you, and you can have the Prize. I'm not interested!"

>b>Fool, Connor thought, as he crossed the painter's name off his list. "Even if he's managed so far, the man is a fool to think he can stay out of the Game, forever," he said, aloud. "None of us can."

The last name Connor had noted in the right-hand column was Alexi Sharimanov.

Connor had met the Russian spy in the middle of the Crimean War, just before the battle of Balaklava. He'd offered Russian battle plans in exchange for a chance at a new life, and Connor had been his contact.

Though Alexi had never revealed the exact reason why he felt compelled to betray his country, he'd led Connor to believe it was connected to a traumatic incident during his childhood in the Ukraine. What Connor had known, but Alexi didn't, was that he had more of a new life in his future than he'd bargained for.

The pre-Immortal spy died his first death while Connor was helping him escape, then Connor had taught him for awhile as they traveled through Europe together after the war. Last he'd heard, Alexi was playing hockey for the IHL in central Canada.

Since the big Russian was more likely to just show up one day with a bottle of cold vodka under each arm, than he was to send cutesy postcards, Connor crossed Alexi's name off the list.

And then there were none--none but his enemies, that is.

Connor tossed his pen down on the desk in disgust. The list of enemies was just too long to tackle in his mind. The postcard sender could be anyone of them. He would just have to wait it out.

But he hated waiting. He needed to do something, yet all he could do was wait - wait and prepare to meet his enemy. Standing abruptly, he decided to go down to the empty warehouse on the third floor and work out awhile. That would take care of two things. One, it would give him something positive to do. And two, it would keep him sharp for the inevitable confrontation.

As he pulled on a pair of sweats, however, the last line from today's postcard ran through his head. Faithful friends who are dear to us, will be near to us once more ...

Isn't that what he'd been doing all morning? Spending time in the company of old friends. Albeit, mental time, rather than physical time, but still, he hadn't thought of any of these old friends in a very long time. And if not for the postcards, he probably wouldn't have thought of them at all.

Then it hit him--Duncan! The man was such a damned sentimentalist. And he'd been even more philosophic since that incident in Paris last year. Though Duncan had refused to talk about it, Connor had heard rumors, disturbing rumors. Whatever it was, it had changed Duncan profoundly. Still, it would be just like his former student and clansman to come up with such a scheme to get him wallowing in the sentimentality of the season.

"Idiot!" he shouted as he snatched up his sword. "Wait 'til I get my hands on you!"

As he worked out with his sword in the vast empty warehouse, Connor thought of different ways he could kill Duncan. Oh not permanently, of course, just something to get him back for all the aggravation he caused. It was a most satisfying session, and when he was through, he wasn't nearly as angry at Duncan as he had been when he started.

"Idiot," he said again, as he paused to for a long swallow of spring water. Then he shook his head and chuckled. "I will get you back for this ... count on it."

Not that Duncan could hear him, of course. He was either in Vermont somewhere or on his way down here. But what was Duncan doing in Vermont, anyway?

Connor shook his head again as several images came to mind. Probably shacked up in a cozy snow-covered cabin with Amanda or some other woman he'd met. And most likely indulging all sorts of Currier and Ives type activities--cruising around the countryside in a horse-drawn sleigh--sipping hot cider and roasting chestnuts over a crackling fire.

"Idiot," Connor said again, then he picked up his sword and returned to his loft.

* * * *

December 24, 1998 dawned with bright sunshine and a sharp nip in the air, but as the day wore on, the clouds moved in. "It feels like snow," was the hopeful opinion of everyone who came into Connor's shop all day.

A steady stream of customers kept him busy and his mind occupied through most of the morning. He didn't have time to think about postcards, though he did give them a passing thought when Ben brought the mail.

The mailman handed over the packet with a cheery greeting, and Connor thumbed through it between customers, but it did not contain one of the mystery postcards. Perhaps his tormentor had tired of this game.

The flow of customers slacked off about 3 in the afternoon, and no one came between 4 and 5. Connor's pre-Christmas rush was over. Now the long evening and the next day stretched out before him.

Grabbing his coat and his sword, he flipped the sign on the door from open to closed, then he left the shop, locking up behind him. A light snow began falling as he walked the three blocks to Joy Yuen's China Palace.

The tiny restaurant that specialized in spicy Hunan cuisine was nearly deserted. That suited Connor just fine. Mrs. Lee, Joy's seemingly ageless grandmother, bobbed her head in greeting and smiled when she recognized him.

"Ah, Mr. Wilson," she crooned in her sing song accent. "Come in, come in."

Though he was often tempted to greet the old woman in her own dialect, Connor resisted. He really didn't need to get involved in a whole explanation about how or why he spoke several Chinese dialects fluently. He merely smiled in return, then followed Mrs. Lee's plump red satin-clad form to a table near the back.

He ordered cold noodles with sesame sauce, the house special soup and Kung Po chicken, then poured himself a cup of tea while he waited.

Unbidden, images of Abby Flynn, returned. At first, he fought them. He wasn't going to fall into that trap again. But the memories were too strong, too pleasant, and there really seemed to be no reason to fight them.

Much to his displeasure, she'd followed him back to his rooms that Christmas Eve so long ago.

* * * *

"Stop following me." he'd snapped at her. She'd been at his heels like a stray dog since they left the Bull and Finch.

"I'm not followin' you," she'd insisted. "I just 'appen to be going in the same direction."

She was following him. He just knew it, though what she hoped to accomplish, he couldn't begin to imagine. He'd already shared his dinner with her, and she didn't want to fight him--so what did she want from him? Asking got him nowhere--demanding would probably get him less--so he quickened his pace.

She kept up.

"This where you live, cap'n?" she asked, when he finally turned to mount the steps at Mrs. Price's Rooming House.

"That's none of your business," he snapped, irritated by the odd feelings she kept stirring up within him. He should just take her head and be done with her. Instead he kept having to fight off this urge to protect her - like she needed protection. She was probably tough as an alligator's hide.

"Looks like a right nice place," she said, with a wistful sigh. Fake sigh, he suspected.

He merely grunted in response as he fit his key in the lock. Mrs. Price locked up promptly at nine, but Connor had managed to talk her into giving him a key for the front door.

Slamming the door shut behind him with more force than was required, he waited a moment, expecting Abiageal Flynn's presence to fade. It didn't. After counting to ten, he yanked the door open again.

The Immortal pest sat on the bottom step with her head in her hands. She turned at the sound of the door.

"Go away," he shouted.

She smiled as she shrugged. "Got no place else to go cap'n. Figure, I might as well just stay here."

"You figured wrong."

She took a moment to mull that over, then she shrugged again. "Why?"

Connor felt his patience slipping away like fine sand through his fingers. "Because I said so," he snapped.

Abby chuckled softly. "Oh and, I suppose you're king of these 'ere steps ... this 'ere street, as well."

Connor's fists clenched and unclenched as he growled through his teeth. Obviously, she didn't understand the finer points of Immortal etiquette. One simply did not camp on another Immortal's doorstep unless one intended to issue a challenge. But he doubted if Abigail Flynn had any mind to challenge him.

"What do you want?" he asked at last, frustrated and out of viable options.

"Just a place to spend the night," she answered.

"Fine!" he shouted, then he went back inside, slamming the door behind him.

"Hey there, keep the noise down. People are tryin' to sleep," a voice dropped down from above.

Connor shut his eyes and made an attempt to quiet his roiling thoughts. If you held a sword to his neck, he wouldn't have been able to come up with a reason why he did what he did next.

He tugged open the door once again. "Get in here," he snarled.

Abby stood and considered him with a flinty stare. "Why?"

"Don't ask questions, woman," he snapped. "Come on--before I change my mind."

Slowly, she bent to pick up her pack, then she sauntered up the stairs like a lady of noble birth on a sunny afternoon stroll in Kensington Gardens.

His fingers ached to strangle her as she passed him, but he thought better of it. "Two flights up, third door on the right," he said instead, then he followed her up the stairs.

Abby leaned against the jam with an inscrutable smile on her face while he opened the door. He was quite tempted to tell her she could go to hell, but he doubted that would make much difference to her, so he pushed the door open and motioned her inside.

She rolled past him and into the room in such a way that he wouldn't have a clear shot at her neck--if he planned to take her head. He conceded her a few points for that precaution while he castigated himself for allowing her into his rooms in the first place. What was he thinking?

"Mighty fine digs, cap'n," she said, dropping her sack on the floor. "But your fire's gone out."

"There's no more coal," he snapped.

"Oh," she said, eyeing him with a healthy measure of sympathy.

The nerve of the little chit, feeling sorry for him.

"Maybe, I'd better go," she said.

"You're staying here, and that's the end of it." He took a long deep calming breath. "You can sleep on the floor. In the morning, you leave, then I never want to see you again. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," she said, smiling as she snapped him a proper salute.

Connor didn't sleep a wink all night. How could he knowing there was strange Immortal just on the other side of his bedroom door? One he'd invited to sleep there in a fit of insanity brought on by extreme frustration.

Part Five

Near dawn, however, he did doze - just a little. Then he awoke with a start as he felt the swirling hum of another Immortal. Abiageal Flynn most likely, but Connor wasn't about to take chances.

He slipped from the bed without making a sound, then took up his sword. Cautiously, he opened his bedroom door.

The first thing that hit him was the smell of bacon, followed closely by the heavenly aroma of fresh bread. The second thing that hit him was the sound of singing - a deep melodic rendition of an old wassailing song.

"Apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry, any good thing to make us all merry," Abby Flynn sang as she arranged plates on a table near the fire - and nicely crackling fire at that.

"If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do. If you haven't got a ha'penny, then God bless you," she sang as if she didn't know he was standing there in his night shirt - with a sword in his hand.

Suddenly, he felt quite foolish, then reason caught a hold of him, and anger set in. She hadn't had a penny the night before, yet here she was setting up a feast fit for a king--in his parlor, no less.

"Merry Christmas, cap'n," she sang without missing a beat.

"What do you think you're doing!" he shouted.

She stepped back from the table a pace, then brushed her unruly hair back from her face. A clean face. And she was wearing a dress, too, he noted. With her pert nose, full lips and luminous green eyes, she looked almost pretty. Not quite, but almost. Still she'd cleaned up nicely - especially in comparison to last night.

"I didn't steal any of this, if that's what you're thinkin'," she said.

"You don't want to know what I'm thinking," he answered, advancing on her with his sword lifted high enough for her to see.

She took another step back and knocked over a stool. "Remember, I told you there was a baker's shop next to the alley?"

"Mmm," he answered. He did remember some mention of a bake shop, but he still couldn't make a connection.

"Well, I know they're busy on Christmas mornings--what with cooking geese and turkeys for those who don't have ovens an' such. So I went back there 'cause I know sometimes they need extra help. That's another reason why I was waitin' in that alley. And the missus was even glad to see the likes o' me, let me tell you."

Connor frowned as the heat from the coal grate wrapped warm tendrils around him, and the rich aroma of the bacon and the bread beckoned him. He fought against it as he continued to stalk his guest.

Keeping a cautious eye on Connor's sword, Abby bent to pick up the stool, then she held her ground. "I'm an 'ard worker, when I set my mind to it," she said, straightening her shoulders and lifting her chin. "One of their regulars didn't show, so they were glad to 'ave me, and that's my pay." She indicated the table with a nod.

Connor's mind struggled to digest all of this, but his stomach refused to let it. It grumbled, protesting loudly.

Abby smiled. "Breakfast's all ready. I was about to pour the tea," she said, moving closer as though she wasn't facing a angry man with a sword in his hand.

"I found the coal in the alley," she continued, pushing past him. "Must 'ave fallen last time they got a delivery."

For some reason, he didn't quite believe the story about the coal, but the rest was plausible enough, he supposed. And who was he to turn down a free meal. "Why?" he asked, wanting to know her reasons anyway.

"Why what?" she asked, smiling as forked a fat slab of bacon onto his plate.

"Why are you doing this? Why did you come back here?"

"Share an' share alike, I always say," she said, sitting down in a chair she had pulled up to the table. "You shared your dinner, now I'm sharing my breakfast."

She poured tea into two cups, then lifted hers. "Happy Christmas, to you!"

* * * *

Connor lifted his cup of Chinese tea and toasted Abiageal Flynn's spirit. "Happy Christmas, Abby," he whispered. "Wherever you are."

She hadn't stayed long, he recalled as a bobbing waiter set steaming plates of food on the table under Mrs. Lee's careful supervision.

Maybe a month or so, but she'd been waiting on his stairs the following Christmas Eve. Even though he'd moved twice, she'd managed to find him. And she was looking more prosperous that year, but then so was he. They'd toasted their success with a fine bottle of old Irish whiskey she'd brought with her. And that was how he'd found out where she came from.

"Donegal," she'd told him, matter of factly, after the level in the bottle had been reduced by a considerable measure. "On the coast near Culdoff Bay."

He'd also learned that she'd died the first time in a fall from a horse that her father had forbidden her to ride. But that was all he'd learned--directly, from her anyway.

He'd gathered, from things she'd said, and memories she'd shared, that she'd been born in the waning years of the fifteenth century, so she was a little older than he was. Her family'd had a horse, so more than likely they'd had substantial wealth as well - but that he could only surmise.

She'd been married, at least once, to one Sean Flynn. "Ah, he was a fine lad," was all she'd had to say on that subject.

But he'd known all he had to know, really. She supplied few facts, but she didn't ask many questions either, and that suited him at the time. She was warm, caring, and she made him laugh. She was also full of mischief and surprises.

Connor could have done very nicely without the surprises, but he had to admit they were part of her charm.

He hadn't loved her - not the way he'd loved Heather, but he had cared for her. And after she showed up the third Christmas in a row, they'd spent the next seven years together. It probably would have been longer, but he couldn't persuade her to come to America with him.

"I'm a homebody," she'd declared. "And I hate boats."

"It's a ship," he'd insisted. "A big ship."

"And it's a big ocean, you'll be crossing ...and one filled with sea monsters, as well!

The last she'd added half in jest, but he couldn't win the argument, and she'd stayed behind, kissing him tenderly before he boarded the ship.

"It's time we moved on, Connor," she'd said, blinking back the tears that filled her eyes. "You know, that."

"Aye," he'd answered, knowing it was true. One tear escaped, and he'd caught it with his knuckle.

"Something to remember me by," she'd said with a smile.

And that was the last time he'd seen her.

Part Seven

Despite the snow it was rather pleasant out when Connor left the restaurant. The air was cold, but dry, and there was hardly any wind. On a whim, he turned in the opposite direction from the one that would take him home, then he began to walk.

He walked without a clear destination, and for no reason other than to simply enjoy being alive. Despite his earlier disgruntled frame of mind, a warm glow diffused throughout him now. He couldn't shake it. Didn't want to shake it.

Christmas lights twinkled at him from apartment windows and blinked at him from balconies. Occasionally people passed by him - singly or in small groups. They smiled and laughed, exchanging cheery greetings with one another. Billowing puffs of moisture escaped from their mouths and swirled around noses and cheeks rouged by the cold.

As he neared the East River, Connor was truly amazed by the silence that surrounded him. And after 480 years not much amazed him, not much at all.

This couldn't compare to the absolute silence of a country night, of course. You can't ever find that in a city of 6 or 8 million people. But the falling snow had muffled the most strident sounds of city life and left it still, and quite peaceful.

Silent night. How appropriate, he thought with a soft chuckle, then he stopped to watch the dark swirling water of the river flow by.

"Damn you, Duncan," he said with a smile. "You can never leave things alone. You always have to meddle."

He could no longer be angry at Duncan for sending the postcards. Somewhere along the way, he'd forgotten that there were advantages to living for so long. But the advantages always got buried under the quest for survival, and the fighting, and the killing. Sometimes he forgot what he was fighting for. To live. To be sublimely contented on a night such as this. To walk the city streets in a timely snowfall, and to revel in peaceful solitude--at least for this moment.

He inhaled deeply, let the breath out slowly, then turned away from the river and began to walk home. Wonder if anyone's still selling Christmas trees, he thought, then he laughed. "Don't get carried," he said aloud. "You'll get sloppy."

* * * *

The familiar droning pulse began as the elevator groaned its way through the fifth floor. A chill ran down Connor's spine, and shattered his pleasant mood. He reached under his coat for his sword. The instant the old elevator stopped on the sixth floor, he lifted the gate with caution. Holding the blade readyto strike, he moved into the hallway.

"Duncan?" he called out. "Is that you?"

No answer.

With all his senses on alert, Connor stepped to the door. There was something taped to it. A note on computer stationary with a holly border.

Through the years we all will be together, it read in the same scrawl that had lined each postcard.

If the Fates allow, it continued.

Hang a shining star upon the highest bough,

And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

"What the--" Connor snatched the note from the door, then crumpled it into a ball.

This nonsense had gone too far. Way too far. Instinctively, he reached into his pocket for his keys, but then he noticed that his door wasn't quite shut. He'd locked it, when he went out. Now, it opened at his touch.

"I really hate surprises," he muttered. "Duncan, where are you?"

No answer.

Maybe it wasn't Duncan after all.

With his shoulder against the jam and his sword held high, Connor rolled around the wall and into the loft. "Dunc--"

Then he stopped. Stood perfectly still. He blinked to clear the vision before him. It didn't go away.

The room was dark, but the flames of nearly a hundred candles, in all shapes and sizes, flickered where they sat on every flat surface. They filled the large room with a soft eerie glow.

In the corner by the fireplace, a large Christmas tree stood. A real tree if the strong pine scent that drifted across the room was any indication. White lights twinkled from within its boughs, and the light refracted off colored glass balls, silver tinsel garland and crystal icicles. Soft music and a crackling fire added sound to the scene.

"Show yourself!" Connor ordered as he inched toward the light switch.

Before his fingers touched the switch, a figure rose from the sofa. Turning slowly, the intruder faced him.

Though adrenaline still surged within him, Connor lowered his sword a notch or two as he took a step forward. He'd stepped into a dream. He was quite sure of that.

The apparition in this dream wore a long green velvet dress with a high neck. Gleaming red hair spilled over one shoulder like silken fire.

"Merry Christmas, Connor," she said, lifting one hand slowly. A large silver star dangled from a wire she held between her thumb and forefinger.

Connor shook his head, partly to clear it so he could think, and partly in absolute astonishment.

Abiageal Flynn had never been pretty, never been what one might call cute, but she certainly cleaned up well. "Good way to get yourself killed," he said moving another step closer.

"Not while I have this." She lifted her other hand enough for him to see the flickering light dance along the blade of her sword.

Connor smiled. No matter what else she was, Abby Flynn was Immortal to the bone.

"I saved the star for you to put on the tree top," she said, swinging the star.

Connor's senses snapped back into place with a bang. The fog surrounding him froze, splintered, then fell away in a thousand crystal shards.

"What are you doing here?" he shouted, suddenly angry at her nerve. "And how the hell did you get in?!"

Abby laughed softly as she rounded the far end of the couch. "You never change, Connor. That's why I love you."

She took a few cautious steps closer to him, then she stopped--a little more than sword's length away.

Connor noted that she still carried hers, as well as the star.

"I came to wish you a Merry Christmas, and...I picked your locks," she answered his questions calmly, and in order.

Still staggering under a heavy load of incredulity, Connor could only stare as she took one more step toward him. "You what--"

"I picked your locks," she said with a shrug. "Handy little trick I picked up from Harry the Dippper back in 1618. Charming character who could pick a lock or a pocket before you could blink. I'm not exactly in his league, though. You really should call a locksmith in and get better ones."

Connor didn't know whether to laugh, kiss her, or to strangle her with his bare hands. "You picked my locks?" he snapped the question out.

"How else was I going to get in?" she responded, holding her ground with a smile.

"And how did you find me?"

Abby set her sword down on the top of the sofa back, then she eased one hip onto the cushiony back as well. She brushed her hair over her shoulder and smiled. "I've been looking for you for years, then I ran into that cousin of yours in Paris. What's his name...Duncan?,/b> He told me you were back in New York."

Connor narrowed his eyes as he made a mental note to have a long talk with Duncan, then set his sword down. "Took you 140 years...I'm not that hard to find." He met her gaze, while he shrugged out of his coat. "I thought you were dead."

"Me? No," she said, laughing softly. "I'm tougher than I look."

"You look good," he conceded.

"So do you."

"Want a drink?" he asked, stepping back toward the cabinet where he kept his liquor. He needed a drink while he sorted all this out.

"Oh...wait," she said, then she slipped off her perch and rounded the sofa. She snagged a gaily wrapped package from the coffee table, then returned to his side. "I brought this." She held it out to him.

He wasn't sure why he hesitated. It wasn't like she was going to hand him a bomb or a poisonous snake. Perhaps his innate sense of caution was still acting in his best interest.

"Take it," she said, pushing it toward him. "It's for you."

He took it. Even though it was wrapped, he could tell from the shape and the weight that it was a bottle of some sort. Still, he opened it gingerly, as though it might bite. His mind was still grappling with the bizarre situation.

As he peeled the wrapping from the bottle, he smiled. "Glenmorangie-- Scotch whiskey. Not Irish?"

"Well, it's a Christmas present for a Scot," she said, laughing. "Why would I get Irish whiskey?"

"Because you only drink Irish whiskey, so you only buy Irish whiskey," he said, laughing with her. "There's no accounting for taste."

"Exactly what I always say," she parried. "Where are your glasses?"

"In the kitchen," he said, nodding his head toward the narrow aisle of cabinets on the far side of a long serving island. "Over the sink."

He watched her retreating form for a moment. She definitely looked good, even better than he remembered. "So where have you been for the last 140 years?" he asked, as he opened the bottle.

"Oh here and there," she shouted, over the thump of cabinets and the clink of glasses. "I've had a bed and breakfast in Vermont for about a year, now. It's nice up there in New England."

She strolled back in with a tumbler in each hand. The dress ran straight from her neck to the floor and clung enticingly to her generous curves.

Connor smiled.

"After you left for America, I went back to Ireland," she continued. "I hung around for a decade or two, then I got married to a mortal who owned a sheep ranch in Australia. After he died, I stayed on there for awhile."

"Australia? How did you get to Australia? You always hated boats."

"Still do," she said, holding the glasses out so he could fill them. "I was scared to death and seasick the whole time. If there'd been an Immortal on board, I think I would have let him have my head without a fight."

"But you went anyway."

She shrugged. "I loved him."

Connor let a deep breath out on the whisper of a sigh. But she hadn't loved him enough to go to America with him. At least now, he knew where he stood.

With out a word, he poured the golden amber liquor into the two glasses.

"Sometimes people make mistakes," she said, softly, as though she'd read his mind. She held her glass in both hands and stared down into it. "And sometimes people learn from those mistakes...if they live long enough."

She looked up, then and watched him with serious eyes until he met her gaze. "And sometimes, they even get a second chance...a new start."

"Sometimes," he said, then he looked away. He stared into the whiskey in his glass as though it held the wisdom of ages, but it refused to give up any of its secrets.

After a moment, she touched her glass to his. "Merry Christmas, Connor," she said softly.

He took a deep breath. "Merry Christmas."

"So shall we put the star on the tree?" she asked, after she had taken a sip.

"If you like," he answered with a shrug, then followed her over to the tree.

A question suddenly surfaced. "How'd you get this in here?" he asked.

"Elves," she replied with a laugh. "Santa's elves." She nodded to indicate a stool set up alongside the tree.

Connor shook his head. There was no point in questioning her further. He knew from experience that he wouldn't get a straight answer, so he mounted the stool and placed the star on the top of the tree.

When he climbed down again, Abby slipped her arms around his neck, then she kissed him. "Have yourself a Merry little Christmas, Connor MacLeod," she said, when she finally pulled away.

Circling her waist with his arms, he gazed into her eyes and remembered what he'd always told Duncan. "You have all the fun, and most of the good women."

No matter what the future might bring...tonight, it was his turn.


To the Authors pages