Title: Christmas Day

By: Liz

Rating: PG

Disclaimers: I own no one Lost World, nor do I own the song "Christmas Day" by Dido.

Author's Notes: Thanks as always to Kate for beta-ing and support (wonderful invention, IM!). For Carolyn, Ashley, and all of the N&V shippers out there.

****

Christmas Day

-Dido

The young gentleman came riding past
on a snow-blue winter's day
He asked to drink by our fire and
I was pleased to let him stay
He drank there quietly for a while
and then he turned and said to me

Your eyes are green
Like summer grass
Your lips are red
like a fresh-cut rose
Your hair is soft
like an Irish stream
And your voice is filled with sweet beauty

And the last words I heard him say were
I shall return for you my love on Christmas Day

And the night will come but I won't sleep
as I watch the stars that lead him
I cannot place where he is
but still my heart goes with him
I'm saving all my Sunday clothes for the day
that I'll be leaving
Father knows
My sister knows

And my friends
They're happy for me
And the priest he says
you should thank God
for the blessing of such beauty

And the last words I heard him say were
I shall return for you my love on Christmas Day
I shall return for you my love on Christmas Day

On Christmas Day
I shall return for you
My love...

And the last words I heard him say
Were the last words I ever heard him say

I shall return for you my love on Christmas Day
I said I will return on Christmas Day
And yes, I shall return on Christmas day
I shall return, for you, on Christmas Day
My love
I will return on Christmas Day
I shall return ,my love, on Christmas Day
On Christmas Day

****

Veronica settled back on the bench near her home and sighed contentedly as she silently surveyed the rolling Irish countryside before her. The December day was clear and crisp and she adjusted the shawl around her shoulders to ward off the slightly chilly air. She had finished her chores and was now looking forward to spending the rest of the morning and afternoon catching up on her reading. She picked up the book in her lap and turned to the bookmark that held her place, quickly getting lost in the adventures of the book's heroine.

After several chapters, Veronica put down the book and stretched out on the bench. Closing her eyes, she looked up towards the sun, enjoying the feel of the winter sun on her face. She didn't know how long she had been sitting like that when she heard the sound of a horse approaching. She opened her eyes, expecting to see her father or sister or brother-in-law, but the rider before her was unfamiliar.

She stood from the bench, pulling her shawl tightly around her shoulders as the man rode up to her. The rider was a young man, probably in his mid twenties like herself, and his sandy hair matched the color of his horse's coat.

"Hello," he said pleasantly from his place in the saddle. "I was wondering if I could trouble you for a drink and possibly the chance to warm my hands before your fire. I've been riding for two days and still have several more days of travel ahead of me."

"Of course," Veronica said. "Please, come in."

The man dismounted his horse and smiled at her. "Thank you," he said. "I appreciate your hospitality."

Veronica led the way into the small cottage and directed the man to a chair by the fireplace. "Please have a seat there while I fix some tea," she told him. He smiled gratefully and sank wearily into the chair, holding his hands out in front of the fire.

A few moments later Veronica joined him, holding two cups of tea. She handed one to the young man and settled herself into the chair next to his with her own teacup. The two sat there in companionable silence for awhile as they drank their tea. It was not until Veronica had refilled the young man's cup that he spoke again.

"I truly appreciate this," he told her.

Veronica shrugged. "My father always taught my sister and I to help out our fellow man whenever he needed it."

The man smiled. "Your father sounds like a very wise man. I only wish others I have met along the way shared his views."

"You mean people wouldn't help you?" Veronica asked in surprise.

He shrugged. "Some couldn't, others didn't want to. Of course, there were a few that did let me in to warm myself for a little while. There were none as lovely and charming as my current hostess, though," he added, and Veronica felt her cheeks color slightly. "May I have the pleasure of my hostess's name?"

Veronica cleared her throat. "Veronica Challenger," she replied.

"Veronica," the man repeated to himself. "Veronica with eyes the color of the beautiful rolling hills of Ireland and lips like rose petals."

Veronica blushed again. "Are you always this familiar with people you've just met?" she asked, trying to mimic the disdainful tone her older sister sometimes got when she was in an uncomfortable situation.

The young man smiled again. "Forgive me, please," he said. "It must be the poetic side of me. Certain things have a tendency to bring it out."

Veronica couldn't keep an answering smile off of her face and she quickly changed the subject. "Well you have me at a disadvantage now," she told him. "You know my name, but I don't know who you are."

"I'm sorry, where are my manners," the young man said sheepishly. "My name is Edward Malone, but my friends and family call me Ned."

"Well, Ned, why have you been traveling so far?" Veronica asked.

"I've come from my family's home and I'm on my way to the homestead of several of my relatives," he replied. "I'm to deliver several messages between family members and pick up medicine for my sister. However, the medicine is coming on a ship that won't be docking for another five days. My relatives' homes are only two more days ride, but I purposely left early so I would have plenty of time to make the journey."

"Is your sister very sick?" Veronica asked curiously.

A momentary flash of pain crossed Ned's face. "She's been ill since birth," he replied. "She was getting better for awhile, but for the last few weeks she's suddenly been getting much worse. Hopefully this medicine will be able to help her."

Veronica patted his arm comfortingly. "I'm sure it will," she told him. Though she had only known him for a very short while, she felt a strange connection to the man by her side and a need to ease the pain she had seen on his face.

"Thank you," Ned replied, slightly caught off guard by the sympathy and understanding he saw in her eyes.

The two young people continued talking as morning turned to afternoon. There was an easy familiarity between them that allowed them to discuss everything from their families to their hopes and dreams for the future, and the two could feel a bond rapidly forming between them.

Several hours later they were still talking when Veronica heard the cottage door open. "Veronica?" she heard her father call.

"I'm in here, father," she called back.

A moment later her father stepped into view. "Veronica, there's a strange horse outside," he began. "Do you know-" He stopped when he saw that his daughter was not alone. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize we had a guest."

Ned and Veronica both rose from their chairs to greet her father. "Father, this is Ned Malone. Ned, this is my father, George Challenger." The two men shook hands in greeting. "Ned is riding out to the coast to meet a ship and pick up medicine for his sister," she explained to her father. "He needed to stop and warm up by the fire."

"Of course," George said, nodding. "Please, stay as long as you like," he told Ned.

"Thank you," Ned replied. "Your daughter tells me you are to thank for her wonderful hospitality to strangers."

George smiled. "We all need a little help every now and then," he said. "And in turn, we should always be ready and willing to help out others when given the chance."

"Well I'm very much obliged to you," Ned responded.

"Think nothing of it," George said, waving his hand. "Veronica, have you seen Marguerite?" he asked his daughter.

"Not since yesterday," she replied. "Were she and John supposed to come today?"

"They said they would be here for supper," George replied. "Father Summerlee is supposed to join us, and I know they were both eager to see him again."

Veronica smiled. "As am I," she said, thinking fondly of their old family friend.

"Well, I need to tend to the fields," George said. "I should only be a few more hours. It was very nice to meet you," he said to Ned, nodding his head at the young man.

"And you as well," Ned responded. George excused himself and the two young people found themselves alone again.

"I'm sorry," Ned apologized to Veronica. "I didn't realize how long we'd been talking in here. I'm sure I've very much overstayed my welcome."

"Don't be silly," Veronica replied. "I've been talking just as much as you have - it's just as much my fault as it is yours that we've been talking for so long. For some reason you're so easy for me to talk to. There's something comfortable, almost familiar, about it." She blushed, realizing what she had said, and looked down at the floor.

Ned gently tipped her chin up so that she was looking at him once more. "I feel the same way," he told her softly.

They stood staring into each other's eyes for several moments until Veronica finally tore her gaze from Ned's. "However, it's an absolutely beautiful day outside, and we're wasting it in here," she said. "Would you like to take a walk with me?"

"I can't think of anything I'd like to do more," Ned replied with a smile. He placed Veronica's shawl around her shoulders and together they walked outside.

Once outside they continued their earlier conversation as they walked through the countryside together. At one point Ned reached over and gently took Veronica's hand in his own. He smiled shyly at her when she looked over at him and she smiled back, squeezing his hand gently.

As they passed a wild rose bush Ned plucked a pale pink flower from the bush and presented it to Veronica. She smiled at him as she poked the stem of the rose through her shawl and they continued their walk.

Eventually, they returned to the cottage, still strolling along hand in hand. When they reached the cottage they saw Marguerite and John sitting on the bench by the cottage, locked in an embrace. Veronica cleared her throat, but her brother-in-law and sister didn't hear her. "You're not alone," she finally said loudly.

Startled, the two sprang apart, relaxing when they saw Veronica. "Very difficult to get any privacy around here," Ned and Veronica heard John murmur to Marguerite as they stood and approached the young couple.

"Hello Marguerite, John," Veronica greeted them happily. "This is Ned Malone. He was traveling and stopped to warm himself by our fire."

"Which makes complete sense, seeing as how you're out walking around in the cold together," Marguerite said with a smile.

Veronica felt her cheeks color slightly and she hurried to continue. "Ned, this is my sister, Marguerite Roxton, and my brother-in-law, John Roxton."

"Pleasure to meet you," Ned said. "Veronica's told me so much about you both."

"Don't believe a word of it," John joked with a smile as he shook Ned's hand. "So, where are you headed?"

"I'm on my way to the coast to meet a ship," Ned replied. "It's carrying medicine my sister needs. It doesn't dock for another five days, though, and I've already been traveling several days. Veronica was kind enough to give me something to drink and grant me the pleasure of her company these past few hours."

The young couple shared a look that did not go unnoticed by Marguerite. "You two are staying for dinner, right?" Veronica asked. "Father Summerlee's coming."

"Of course we are," Marguerite replied. "Mr. Malone, I hope you'll join us as well."

Veronica blushed, not believing that she hadn't even thought to ask Ned to stay for dinner. Truthfully, she had subconsciously felt that it was a question she didn't even need to ask.

"That's very kind of you, but I've already intruded so much on your hospitality," Ned began.

"Don't be silly," Veronica broke in. "We'd love to have you stay."

"Yes," Marguerite agreed. "In fact, why don't we go inside? Veronica and I will finish up the dinner that I started and then we can all have some tea before dinner."

The others agreed and they started back to the house, Veronica and Ned still hand in hand. Marguerite put her hand on her husband's arm to hold him back a moment, letting the other couple walk in front of them. "What are you doing?" John asked. "Eager to get back to what we were doing before we were so rudely interrupted?" he asked, gently caressing the side of her face with his hand.

Marguerite smiled. "Of course I am," she told John. "But that's not why I stopped you. Have you noticed anything about Veronica?"

John looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"

Marguerite shook her head. "You really didn't see it?"

"See what?"

"I think Veronica's in love," she said softly, looking after her younger sister and Ned as they entered the house. She couldn't help the feeling of worry that accompanied the thought. Her younger sister had never been in love, but she had always known that when the time came, Veronica was the type of person who would fall hard and give her heart and soul completely to the man she loved.

"Why do you say that?" John asked gently, seeing the conflicting emotions on his wife's face.

"Did you see how they're so comfortable with each other in such a short amount of time?" she asked. "The way they looked at each other?"

John nodded. "We look at each other the same way." The couple shared a tender look and John placed a soft kiss on Marguerite's forehead. "Don't worry about Veronica," he said. "You know she can be trusted to make the right decision."

Marguerite sighed. "I know. I just worry about her. She's still my baby sister."

John put his arm around her shoulders as they began to walk back to the cottage. "Don't worry," he repeated. "Perhaps it's meant to be," he added. "Like you and I."

Marguerite wrapped her arm around her husband's waist as they entered the cottage and for the thousandth time thanked her lucky stars for bringing this wonderful, understanding, loving man into her life. He was right. Veronica was old enough to make her own decisions, and she usually made the right ones. She'd just have to trust her little sister's judgement and support her in whatever choices she made.

****

All through dinner Marguerite and John watched the interaction between Ned and Veronica, and by the end of the meal, John had to agree with his wife's earlier speculation. However, he also felt that Veronica's feelings were most definitely not one-sided, as he could see them mirrored in the eyes, actions, and words of Ned.

The conversation at the dinner table was pleasant, the atmosphere almost festive with two guests joining the family for dinner. Despite her earlier reservations, Marguerite felt herself liking Ned more and more as dinner wore on and she found she was extremely thankful he had been brought into her younger sister's life.

When dinner was finished they all moved to sit by the fire and continued talking. Eventually, though, Ned regretfully announced that it was time for him to continue on his journey. "I cannot thank you enough for your hospitality," he said to George. "It was an honor to meet you all."

"I shall pray for your sister's speedy recovery," Father Summerlee said, grasping Ned's hand in his own.

"Thank you, Father," Ned said. "You're very kind."

"Will we be seeing you again?" Marguerite asked, trying to keep her tone light to mask the nervousness she felt on behalf of her younger sister as she awaited his answer.

"Nothing would give me more pleasure," Ned replied honestly, looking over at Veronica.

Veronica blushed as she smiled back at him. "I'll walk you out," she said, retrieving her shawl from her chair and wrapping it around her shoulders. Ned said goodbye to everyone again then took Veronica's and they left the cottage together.

"Ah, young love," Father Summerlee said after the couple had exited the cottage.

"George looked at his friend in surprise. "Love?" he questioned, baffled. "What are you going on about, Arthur? They hardly know one another."

"Doesn't matter," John said. "Sometimes, love can happen in an instant." He looked down at his wife warmly.

Marguerite smiled. "They're right, father," she agreed. "I noticed it earlier. It worried me at first, because of the short amount of time they've known each other, but I think we have to trust Veronica to make the right decision. She's not a little girl anymore, we can't tell her what to do, and we certainly can't tell her how to feel."

Father Summerlee nodded. "She's right, George," he said. "Whether you've noticed it or not, Veronica isn't a child anymore. She's a young woman who can make her own decisions. The best thing we can do for her is to support her in whatever choices she makes."

George sighed as he sat back in his chair. "How did my little girls grow up so fast?" he murmured to himself.

****

Outside Veronica and Ned stood together by his horse, still talking. Neither wanted to be the one to end the conversation and bring about Ned's departure. Finally, Ned was the one to regretfully bring the conversation to a close. "You're shivering," he said to Veronica. "You should get back inside and by the fire."

"It doesn't seem to me that you'll be much better off in a little while," she responded.

Ned shrugged. "I'm dressed a little more warmly than you are. And I'm getting used to traveling in this weather."

"I, I guess this is goodbye, then," Veronica said sadly, blinking back the tears that suddenly threatened in her eyes. "Oh, I wish you didn't have to leave. I hate to see you go," she burst out.

"And I hate to leave you," Ned responded softly. He reached over and gently tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "I know I've only known you a short while, but somehow I can't seem to imagine my life without you in it."

Veronica smiled even as a tear escaped and trickled down her cheek. "I know what you mean," she agreed. "I feel like I've always known you."

Ned gently brushed the tear away with his finger. "Veronica, can I ask you something?"

Veronica nodded. "Anything."

"I have to get the medicine and bring it back to my sister, and that will take me a week or so. But after that I wish to return to you. Will you, will you wait for me?"

Veronica beamed at him, understanding just what he was asking for her. "Yes, Ned," she said happily. "I'll wait for you. I'll wait as long as it takes."

Ned leaned forward and kissed Veronica's lips softly. When he pulled back they both smiled shyly at each other. "I will return," he promised her. "On Christmas Day, I shall return for you."

"I'll count the days," she said softly.

Ned smiled and then kissed her again before he mounted his horse. "Goodbye, Veronica," he said. "We'll be together again soon, I promise."

"Christmas Day," Veronica said happily.

"On Christmas Day," Ned repeated. "I will be back for you then, my love."

"Safe journey," Veronica said, once again fighting back tears. Ned raised his hand in farewell, then turned and galloped away. Veronica watched him until she could no longer see him, then slowly re-entered the cottage.

Marguerite was waiting for her just inside the door and pulled Veronica into a comforting hug when she saw the mixture of joy and sorrow on her face. "I love him, Marguerite," Veronica said, finally letting her tears fall. "I know he and I have only know each other for a matter of hours, but I truly love him."

Marguerite stroked her younger sister's hair soothingly. "I know," she murmured. "I know."

"And he loves me," Veronica said. "He told me he would be back for me," she added, pulling away and smiling radiantly at her older sister. "He promised he would be back for me on Christmas Day, once he's delivered the medicine for his sister."

Marguerite smiled gently at her sister. "We had all suspected as much," she told her.

"What do you mean?" Veronica asked in surprise.

"Well, I noticed it earlier and I pointed it out to John," Marguerite told her. "And after the two of you left, Father Summerlee mentioned young love. Of course, father was floored," she added with a smile. "He was the only one who couldn't see it. But you know how difficult it is for him to realize we've grown up."

Veronica smiled back at Marguerite. "Let's go tell them, then," she said. "I want to share my good news with everyone."

Linking arms, the two returned to where the men sat before the fireplace. Veronica repeated to them what Ned had said to her and they all congratulated her. "That's wonderful, I'm happy for you," John said, kissing his sister-in-law's cheek. "He seems like a very good sort of fellow."

Father Summerlee hugged her. "God has truly blessed the two of you by bringing you together in love," he told her with a smile. "I'm very happy for you as well, and I wish you all the happiness in the world together."

"Thank you," Veronica said. "I truly do feel blessed."

George stepped forward and regarded his youngest daughter a moment before he, too, pulled her into his arms in a warm hug. "It's very hard for me to see both of my daughters grown up into beautiful young women right before my eyes," he said softly. "But I'm happy for you. You deserve so much to be happy, and if this man can make you happy, then you have my blessing."

"Thank you, father," Veronica said, hugging him back as tears once again streamed down her face.

Father Summerlee and John and Marguerite left soon afterwards to return to their own homes and George told his daughter he was going to bed. "All right, father," Veronica said. "I'm not tired yet, I think I'll just stay up a little while longer." George kissed her goodnight and then retired to his bedroom for the night.

After her father had gone to bed Veronica sat by the window, staring out at the night sky. The thought that Ned was under the very same sky cheered her a bit as she gazed up at the stars. "The North Star," she murmured to herself. "He's probably traveling by that right now." She pictured Ned in her mind, galloping along on his horse, the stars leading him on his way, and smiled to herself. She sat staring at the stars until sleep finally overtook her and she fell asleep in her chair by the window, her dreams filled with her day with Ned and the reunion they would share in only a few weeks.

****

The weeks leading up to Christmas passed with an agonizing slowness for Veronica. Marguerite, John, George, and Father Summerlee all did what they could to take her mind off of her wait, but it was no use. No matter what she was doing, Veronica found her thoughts always returned to Ned. The clear December sky reminded her of his beautiful blue eyes. The rose bushes by the house reminded her of the rose he had given her on their walk.

She began to ready herself for his return. She got the cottage completely in order so that it would be easy for George to manage by himself if she were to leave with Ned. Her best clothing she washed and set aside, saving it to wear only when he returned to her. She and Marguerite even began to discuss the possibility of an upcoming wedding and Marguerite promised that she would help Veronica get their late mother's wedding dress ready to be worn once more.

The night before Christmas Veronica was unable to sleep, consumed with thoughts of her love's return the following day. She could scarcely believe that in only a few short hours she would be in his arms once more. Impatiently, she began to count the hours until dawn, certain she would never be able to sleep until she had seen him once more. An hour before dawn, however, she finally fell into a restless slumber.

When John and Marguerite showed up for Christmas morning breakfast Veronica had still not woken up. "I'm a little worried," George confided to them. "Would you go and check on her?" he asked Marguerite.

She nodded and entered the bedroom she had once shared with her sister. There she found Veronica sitting up on her bed staring at the wall unseeingly, clutching the dried rose Ned had given her in her hands. "Veronica?" she said softly, unnerved by the empty look in her sister's eyes. "Are you all right?"

"He's not coming back," Veronica said flatly, not looking at her sister.

"What? What are you talking about?" Marguerite asked, crossing the room to sit beside her sister on the bed.

"Ned. He's not coming back," Veronica repeated. "He can't." She turned to face her sister then and Marguerite saw sweat beading on her forehead.

"Veronica, do you feel all right?" Marguerite asked, putting the back of her hand to her sister's forehead. "You're burning up!" she cried, alarmed at the heat radiating from her sister's skin. "Get back into bed this instant. I'll go and get father."

Marguerite raced out into the kitchen where John and her father stood. "Father, come quick!" she cried. "Veronica's feverish."

The two men quickly followed her back to Veronica's bedroom where they found her lying in bed, still holding onto the rose. George felt her forehead and turned to the other two. "Marguerite, go and get some cold water and washcloths," he said tersely. "John, get the doctor. Tell him it's extremely important." The couple nodded and hurried off to carry out their tasks.

An hour later Marguerite was placing a cold compress on Veronica's forehead in an effort to bring down the fever when John returned with the doctor. Father Summerlee was right behind him, having been on his way to cottage to join the family for the Christmas holiday.

The doctor checked Veronica over while Marguerite, John, George, and Father Summerlee waited outside in the hall. "What happened?" Father Summerlee asked. "How did she get sick?"

"I don't know," Marguerite said. "She seemed fine yesterday, but when I went in to wake her up this morning I found her sitting on her bed staring at the wall. When I asked her what was wrong all she would say was that Ned wasn't coming back. That's when I discovered she had a fever and I ran and got father. She hasn't said anything since."

Just then the doctor came out of Veronica's room, closing the door behind him. They crowded around him, eager to hear his diagnosis and how they could treat Veronica. One look at his face, however, told them he did not have good news for them. He shook his head somberly.

"What do you mean?" Marguerite demanded, her voice rising to an almost hysterical pitch. "What's wrong with her?"

"I've never seen anything like it," the doctor admitted. "It's like her entire body is just shutting itself down. I don't know what could have caused it, and I don't know how to stop it. At this rate, she won't last through the night."

"No! I don't believe you!" Marguerite raised her hands as if to strike the doctor, but John caught her by her arms and held her until she sank against him, sobbing. "No," she moaned. "No, it can't be! It can't!"

George stood frozen in shock. "Are you sure?" he asked stiffly.

The doctor nodded sadly. "I'm so sorry, George," he said. "Her body just seems to suddenly giving up. I can't explain it."

"Does she, does she know?" John choked out, his own eyes red rimmed and filled with tears.

The doctor nodded. "She almost seems to be at peace with it," he said. "She asked to see the Father to administer last rites," he added, gesturing to Father Summerlee.

Father Summerlee brushed away the tears rolling down his cheeks. "Of course," he said. "George, would you like to go in first?"

George shook his head. "Please go first, Arthur," he said. "I'd like a chance to get myself together before I see her."

Father Summerlee nodded understandingly, clasping his longtime friend's shoulder in a gesture of comfort. Then he turned and entered Veronica's room.

Marguerite's sobs had turned to whimpers by the time Father Summerlee came out of Veronica's room. "She wants to see all of you," he said.

Marguerite slowly pulled out of John's arms and turned to Father Summerlee. "All of us?" she questioned.

The father nodded. "She said she knows she doesn't have much time left and that she wants to be surrounded by the people she loves when it's her time to go."

Marguerite swallowed hard, steeling herself for the task ahead of them. John reached over and took her hand, squeezing it gently to let her know that he would be right there when she needed him. She turned to her father and he nodded at her to enter the room. She and John walked into the bedroom with George and Father Summerlee right behind them.

Veronica lay in the bed, Ned's rose still clasped in her hands on top of her chest. She turned her head slightly when they entered the room and smiled weakly at her family. "I'm sorry," she told them. "But please don't be so sad for me. It's just my time. I love you all so much, but it's time for me to go now. I'll be with you soon, Ned," she murmured, as her eyes closed for the final time.

****

Veronica jerked awake with a start and sat up in her bed. She tried to get her breathing back under control as she looked around at the familiar sights in her bedroom in the treehouse. She couldn't believe it; it had all been a dream. It had felt so real, though. She had felt the warmth of the sun, the joy of love, the sorrow of knowing Ned would never return to her.

Ned!

She quickly got out of bed and made her way to the reporter's bedroom. She told herself she was being ridiculous, but she knew she would be unable to get back to sleep until she had seen for herself that he was safe and sound.

She made her way quietly into his bedroom and gasped, stopping short just inside the room. Everything in the room looked the way it always did - except for Ned's bed. The sheets were turned back and it looked like it had been slept in, but it was currently empty.

"No, this can't be happening," Veronica said out loud. "It was just a dream. Where is he?" She made her way up to the main floor of the treehouse, looking around the kitchen area desperately. She found no sign of Ned, though, and was just about to wake the other occupants of the treehouse when a voice called her name softly from the balcony.

"Veronica?" Ned called quietly. "What are you doing up? Are you all right?"

Veronica ran across the treehouse to where Ned stood, launching herself into his arms. "Ned! You're all right! Oh, thank God!" She wrapped her arms around him, never wanting to let him go again.

"Veronica, are you all right?" Ned repeated even as he hugged her back. "What's going on?"

"Oh Ned, I had a dream, but it was all so real! I lived in a cottage in Ireland and Challenger was my father and Marguerite was my sister and she and Roxton were married. And Summerlee was a priest. And you came riding up to our door, traveling to get medicine for your sister, and you stopped at our house and you and I fell in love and you promised to come back for me on Christmas Day, but you never came!" The words tumbled out of her mouth in a rush as she pulled back to look Ned in the face.

Ned was surprised at how upset Veronica seemed and he gently stroked her cheek. "Veronica, I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't know my Christmas story was going to give you dreams that would upset you so much."

Veronica shuddered. "I knew, somehow, that you would never be back for me. It hurt me so much, even though it wasn't real." She sighed. "I'm so glad it was all just a dream."

Ned looked at her a moment before he spoke. "You're glad about all of it?" he asked carefully.

Veronica only stared at him a moment before she understood what he was asking. "Well, maybe not all of it," she amended, leaning forward to meet his lips with her own in a warm kiss.

When they broke their embrace, Ned leaned forward to rest his forehead against Veronica's. "Merry Christmas, Veronica," he murmured.

"Merry Christmas, Ned."