Secretly, Duncan MacLeod never really started to feel Christmasy until after the winter solstice, but because the solstice was also his birthday, he was always a bit embarrassed about it. Was he so egocentric as to think his own birth gave a greater meaning to the festival of light? He paused in wrapping Tessa’s tenth present to ponder this, and then snorted in self-derision. After nearly four centuries of living, he was quite certain of the insignificance of his place in the universe.
Holding his tongue between his teeth in concentration, he stuck several more pieces of tape on the crookedly matched ends of the paper, and then plopped a peel-and-stick gold bow onto the box. Wonderful invention, those bows. He always wondered why his hands were clever enough to mend a delicate antique clock, but incapable of wrapping a simple box without inflicting major damage. He longed to use those convenient printed boxes or bags, but Tessa simply couldn’t be trusted around presents. The only way to keep her out of them until Christmas was to use paper and tape – lots of tape. He conceded that Tessa had her own holiday trials with him, too. She had resorted to hiding his gifts until Christmas morning.
He placed her present under the tree with the rest and wished that Tessa would allow him to exceed her limit of ten gifts this year. After their first year together, when he had overwhelmed her with twenty-seven presents, she had firmly set the limit of ten, and he had reluctantly agreed. Then again, he supposed it didn’t matter, because he had simply given her more gifts throughout the year, meeting her sighs of affectionate exasperation with a bland, innocent smile.
He smiled now, anticipating her gleefully attacking the stack of presents, ripping the paper from each gift and tossing aside the mangled wrappings. He loved it when the gifts that he chose made her laugh, or gasp with delight. On the other hand, Tessa always bemoaned the fact that shopping for him was nearly impossible; what did one get a man who could buy anything he needed, and probably already owned everything he wanted? She was never quite satisfied with anything she gave him.
The door flew open, interrupting his reverie, and he was surrounded with cold, snow-spangled air and the essence of his happiness: Tessa, smiling into his eyes, kissing him on both cheeks and on his mouth, his chin, his adam’s apple; Tessa, laughing in the kitchen as they made eggnog and brought out the special chocolates; Tessa, warm and pliant in his arms as they drifted into sleep.
They never needed to set the alarm on Christmas morning. As soon as their bedroom brightened with the first feeble light of dawn, Tessa was prodding him to get up. She went immediately to her workshop and unearthed a wrapped present from a jumble of metal left over from a sculpture. Duncan, sleepily sipping his first cup of coffee, blinked in surprise.
“You’re a sneaky one,” he teased her. “Next year that’s where I’ll look first, you know.”
“Next year I’ll find a sneakier hiding place,” she retorted, handing him the package.
The package itself was almost a work of art with hand-painted paper, an elaborate and elegant bow with pine and holly, and not a lump or crooked seam in sight.
“Don’t know how you do it,” he grumbled as he carefully removed the wrappings, ignoring Tessa’s exhortations to hurry.
The present was an album with a beautiful leather cover, discreetly stamped with his initials. He smoothed his hands over the supple leather, turning it over to inspect the back.
“Oh, would you just open it?” pleaded Tessa, smacking him smartly on the knee.
Grinning at her impatience, he finally opened the album to the first page. It was a drawing of the tour boat where the two of them had met, with Tessa looking askance at the cheeky ruffian who had jumped from the dock to her boat. Chuckling at the memory stirred by the picture, he turned the page. The second drawing was set on Tessa’s little balcony at her apartment, where they had shared many breakfasts of coffee and croissants in their first months together. She had focused on their two hands clasped on the table, with the view from her apartment in the background. The third page made Duncan look up at her with a bemused expression.
“I didn’t know you did this,” he said.
“You were sleeping,” she pointed out with a sly smile.
He looked back down at the page, where she had sketched him in their bed, capturing both his strength and his utterly replete exhaustion. He felt his face heating.
“Look at you,” she said fondly, “blushing over a nude sketch. You’re so beautiful, Duncan, don’t you know that?”
“Just so we don’t hang this over the mantle,” he muttered, and turned another page.
His katana was reproduced there in fine detail, with his own hand grasping the hilt. His eyes darted up to hers again.
“It’s part of you,” she said simply.
He went on turning the pages, each one depicting something meaningful from their lives together, drawn with a skilled and loving hand. At the end was her self-portrait, done with just a few strokes, but the eyes were so alive with love that Duncan found himself unable to speak for a moment.
“You like it?” Tessa finally asked hesitantly.
“What do you think?” he whispered, pulling her over to sit on his lap and bury his face in her soft neck.
After a few moments he was able to ask her what made her think of doing a sketchbook for him. She lay against his shoulder, her fingers smoothing the lapels of his robe as she tried to explain.
“You’re nearly four hundred years old, Duncan. You have so many memories inside you, so many old friends and lovers that you hold dear. I know the memories are both a blessing and a curse for you. I know, too, that someday I will join the others in your memory.”
She felt him gather breath to protest, and sat up to press her fingers against his lips.
“No, it’s all right, Duncan. Listen. When that day comes, along with your memories you will have this record of my memories of you. I like to think that you might look at the pages someday, and remember how much I love you. Do you understand?”
“I do understand, Tess, and the book is wonderful – so thoughtful, so beautifully done in every way. But Sweetheart, I hope you understand that it’s only the second-best present you’ve ever given me; the first is the gift of yourself. I’ve been waiting my whole, long life for the grace and the blessing of that gift.”
After a rather moist interval, interspersed with kisses and sniffling, and a thorough application of Duncan’s handkerchief on both faces, Duncan cleared his throat.
“Uh, Tessa, you haven’t opened any presents yet.”
She struggled from his lap and stood glaring down at him in mock anger.
“That settles it,” she declared, “no more sentimental gifts! Next year I’m getting you a tie.”