Christmas had always been Richie's least favorite holiday, the one that really rubbed his face into everything he was missing by not having a real family. Even in the nicer foster homes, the ones that really made an effort to include him in their celebrations, he always felt like an outsider. The gifts he got were usually "practical" things -- clothes and shoes and books, often handed down from the foster families' real kids. And he himself had never been able to afford a decent gift for anybody. The year before, he had skipped out on the festivities altogether, and spent Christmas Eve hanging out in a scuzzy bar on Thompson Street, where the beer was cheap and the bartender didn't look too closely at Richie's fake ID. He ended up staggering home at four in the morning, wasted and stinking of cigarette smoke, and his foster parents didn't even ask him where he'd been. He ran away two weeks later, and no one had bothered looking for him.
This year was different, though. Mac and Tessa were different. In less than six months, they'd gone from total strangers to family. For the first time in his memory, Richie was looking forward to December 25th.
Provided he could find a gift.
Richie had saved up a little over a hundred bucks from the money MacLeod paid him for working at the store. He figured it wouldn't be enough for two good presents, so he'd gone looking for something for both of them. A vase or a picture or something. But nothing he saw at the mall was as nice as what they already had. Richie would've liked to shop around some more, but he was supposed to be at Angie's house for dinner and six-thirty, and he was already cutting it close. Angie was the only person from his old neighborhood he was still friends with, and he didn't want to piss off her parents by showing up late. They already didn't like him, though they were always nice to him for Angie's sake.
There was a florist's shop around the corner from Angie's house. On an impulse, Richie decided to pull over and go in. Maybe he'd score some brownie points if he brought something for Angie's mom. He selected half a dozen pink carnations, had the clerk wrap them in red and green tissue paper, and hurried back outside, anxious not to waste any more time. He was getting back onto the bike when he saw the moving garbage bag.
It was wedged into the narrow gap between the flower shop and the next building, and surrounded by other assorted trash. Looking at it, Richie's first thought was of rats. But then he remembered a news story from the year before, about a baby found abandoned in an alleyway, wrapped in a trash bag. It had suffocated in the plastic before anyone had found it...
Richie tucked the flowers under his arm, squatted next to the bag, and tore it open.
Something furry squirmed inside. Richie jerked his hand back. It is rats! Gross! Then one of the "rats" meowed.
It was such a tiny sound, Richie thought he'd imagined it at first. But a few seconds later he heard it again, a plaintive little sound that raised a lump in his throat. Abandoning all caution, Richie stuck his bare hand into the torn bag and scooped out a silver-gray kitten, no bigger than his hand, with a little white spot under its chin. It looked half-starved, its fur was matted, and it didn't even try to struggle as Richie lifted it. He put it in his lap, and went back to the bag, widening the tear he'd made earlier so that he could get at the other kittens. There turned out to be seven altogether, but only one other was still alive -- a shivering little ball of fluff with a tortoiseshell back and a white tummy.
"Poor fellas." Richie stood up, cradling a kitten in each hand. "Nobody wanted you, huh? I can relate." The gray meowed again, and batted at Richie's thumb with one tiny paw. The tortoiseshell just lay there and shivered. Watching them, Richie felt a surge of anger. What kind of sicko would leave defenseless kittens to suffocate in a garbage bag? The same kind that would leave a baby, I guess.
He took off his jacket and wrapped it around the kittens, then got on his bike. It was hard to drive while holding a squirming bundle in his lap, but Richie found he could manage -- once he discarded his just-purchased flowers. Oh, well. He gave a mental shrug. Hopefully Angie's mom will understand.
He needn't have worried. Angie's whole family took one look at the kittens and promptly turned to mush. Angie fetched an old throw pillow for their bed, her dad donated one of his old flannel shirts for a kitty blanket, and her mom mixed water and evaporated milk to feed them. The kittens proved too young or too weak to lap at their food, so Richie and Angie sat on the floor for over an hour, feeding them with an eye dropper, while Kim, Angie's little sister, hovered in the background making goo-goo noises.
"What are you going to do with them?" Angie asked. "You gonna take them to a shelter?"
"No way!" Richie held the gray protectively against his chest. "The shelters only keep them for a week, and then they put them to sleep if nobody wants them."
"Aw..." Angie made kissing noises at the kitten she was holding. "Who could possibly not want a cute couple of kitties like that?"
"Well, someone tossed them in the trash," Richie snapped. "Being cute didn't do them much good then, did it? And what if the shelter gives them away to some moron who forgets to feed them or something? Or decides they're too much trouble and throws them away again? Or--"
"Richie." Angie was looking at him with a worried expression. "You don't have to take them to a shelter if you don't want to. Don't get all worked up about it."
"Sorry." Richie gave a sheepish smile. "Didn't mean to yell. I guess I'm pissed at whoever threw them out, that's all. It just really bothers me that someone would do that."
Angie's face softened. "I understand," she said, and reached over to squeeze Richie's shoulder for no apparent reason. "It's okay. So what are you going to do with them?"
There was a hopeful note in her voice that Richie refused to notice. He knew exactly what he wanted to do with the kittens -- take them home and keep them -- but he wasn't sure what Mac and Tessa would say about it. They wouldn't mind, would they? Tessa seemed like a cat person, now that he thought about it, and Mac had already demonstrated his tendency to take in strays. Maybe he could ask for this as his Christmas present. Or maybe...
"That's it!" He slapped one hand against the floor. "Angie, I'm brilliant!"
"Even if you do so say so yourself? So what are you brilliant about, in particular?"
"Christmas presents! One for Mac, one for Tessa. It's perfect!"
"The kittens?" Angie looked dubious. "I don't know, Richie. You shouldn't give pets to people unless you know they want them..."
"Come Ange, you said it yourself, how could they possibly not want them? And let's face it, there's nothing else I could possibly get them. I mean, you've seen their place -- they've got everything. So now they'll have everything plus two cute cats."
"I don't know..." Angie muttered again.
Richie barely heard her. "It's gotta be a surprise, so you'll have to keep them until tomorrow. Mac and Tessa will be going to an auction in the afternoon, so we'll be able to sneak them in then. You'll help me out, right, Ange? I'm counting on you here."
"Sure." Angie sighed. "I'll help you out."
They spent the rest of the evening flipping through a tattered copy of "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," searching for suitable names. Richie finally settled on Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser, which promptly got shortened to Mungo (for the gray) and Tease (for the tortoiseshell). Richie would've stayed up fussing with them all night, but he didn't think that would go over too well with Angie's folks, so he let himself be politely ushered out shortly after Kim was put to bed.
"Remember," he called to Angie from the bike, "bring them by at two o'clock tomorrow."
"I'll be there." Angie made shooing motions at him. "Go home, will you!"
"I'm gone." Richie gave one final wave, and revved the bike.
For such an off-the-cuff plan, it went pretty smoothly. Duncan and Tessa duly went off to their auction. Richie promptly stuck a "BACK IN 1 HOUR" sign in the store window, and ran off in search of a pet shop. The hundred bucks he had saved paid for a litter box, a cat bed, two little collars with name tags, and a bottle of flea-and-tic shampoo. At two o'clock, Angie showed up with Mungo and Tease. By the time Duncan and Tessa came home, the kittens were happily sleeping in Richie's closet.
For the next two weeks, Richie frantically juggled his work at the store, the Christmas preparations, and kitty-sitting. He managed it, though there were a few close calls. Changing the litter box proved particulary challenging -- he ended up having to sneak outside at five a.m. on a Sunday to hand a bag of used litter to a puzzled sanitation worker. Meanwhile, Mungo and Tease grew at an amazing rate, learned to eat real food, and shredded one of Richie's favorite T-shirts when he carelessly dropped it on the floor one night before going to bed.
If either Duncan or Tessa noticed that Richie was spending a great deal of time in his room all of a sudden, they didn't say anything about it. The Saturday before Christmas, Duncan and Richie drove out to a tree farm just outside Seacouver and selected a tree -- or rather, Richie selected and MacLeod paid. They came back with a tree so huge they had to cut three inches off the bottom to make room for the angel on the top. By the time they had it all set up, the carpet was covered in little green needles, MacLeod and Richie were covered in tar, and the whole house smelled of pine. Richie couldn't remember the last time he had so much fun at Christmas.
Mac and Tessa had an amazing collection of ornaments. There were glittering spun-glass angels, little origami animals, antique glass spheres in jewel colors, and miniature musical instruments that looked exactly like the real thing.
"Family heirlooms," Tessa explained, holding up a tiny violin suspended on a loop on gold string. "My great-grandfather made them. He made real ones for a living, but I think he must've liked these even better, he made so many. My sister has over a dozen."
"Cool." Richie picked up another ornament, carefully brushing aside the wrapping. "What's this? A banjo or something?"
MacLeod laughed. "It's a lute, Richie. They didn't have banjos in nineteenth century France."
Richie shrugged. "Well, whatever it is, it's cool." It wasn't the lute itself that impressed him, though it really was beautiful. It was the notion of people passing down a small, fragile object from one generation to another, because it was part of the family history. He imagined little French kids in old-fashioned clothes, wrapping the ornaments in tissue paper every year to make sure they lasted for future Christmases. The image didn't make him feel jealous, or resentful, or any of the things he used to feel when presented with images of "perfect families" during the holidays. It was great that Tessa had the kind of family that made toys and passed them on as heirlooms, and Richie felt glad to be connected to it, no matter how slight the connection might be.
It didn't actually snow on Christmas Eve, but everything else was perfect. Dinner was roast goose, accompanied by chestnut stuffing, mashed potatoes, three different vegetables, and gravy. By the end of the meal, even Richie declared he couldn't eat another bite. Afterwards, they all waddled into the living room with their hot chocolate and collapsed groaning on the sofa.
"I'm never gonna move again," Richie announced, patting his stomach.
MacLeod grinned at him. "Does that mean you don't want to open the presents?"
"Well, okay, maybe I'll move a little."
"Because we could wait till tomorrow, if it's all too much for you..."
"I'll manage!" Richie bounced off the sofa, and began pulling gift boxes from under the tree. Earlier in the week, he had filled two empty boxes with tissue paper, wrapped them, and put them in the pile, pretending they contained his gifts to MacLeod and Tessa. Now he discreetly pushed them aside, and brought the real gifts forward. Later, after all the other presents were unwrapped, he would fetch Mungo and Tease from him room. Saving the best for last, and all that.
Tessa's gift from Duncan was a gold choker set with a heart-shaped garnet. She put it on immediately, then proceeded to pull Duncan into a kiss that lasted until Richie rolled his eyes and muttered, "Get a room, you guys!" Then they broke apart, laughing, and MacLeod opened his present -- a gorgeous blue silk shirt with slightly puffed sleeves, and Celtic embroidery on the plaquet and cuffs. This led to another round of smooching, before Duncan pushed a stack of three brightly wrapped boxes toward Richie.
"Your turn, Rich. One from me, one from Tessa, one from both of us. Hope you like them."
The first box was from Tessa. Richie tore at the silver wrapping paper to reveal the words "Neiman Marcus" printed on the lid. He didn't know what that was, but it sounded suspiciously like a clothing store. Richie pulled aside the tissue paper. Inside was a black turtleneck sweater. Richie lifted it out of the box, and immediately pressed it to his cheek. It was unbelievably soft. It made him think of the fur on the kittens' backs.
"See?" Tessa poked Duncan in the arm. "I told you he'd do that. Everyone does."
"Does what?" Richie asked.
"It's cashmere," Tessa explained. "And I've noticed that when you give people cashmere, the first thing they do is hold it to their face. Duncan didn't believe me when I told him."
Cashmere was the good stuff, that much Richie knew. The expensive stuff. Not that he cared about the cost, but if Tessa had just thought that he needed a sweater, she could've gotten him a much cheaper one. If she picked this one, it was because she thought he'd like it. Richie honestly couldn't recall the last time anyone had done that for him. Sometimes he thought he remembered Emily Ryan giving him a blue-and-yellow tricycle for his birthday, but he wasn't sure if that was a true memory or just wishful thinking.
"Thanks, Tess." He put the sweater back in the box, and carefully re-folded the tissue paper over it. "It's perfect."
"Now mine," Duncan demanded, and actually bounced on the sofa, as if he was four instead of four hundred. Richie picked up the package, which was square and flat and unexpectedly heavy.
"It's a book, isn't it?"
"Well, yes," Duncan admitted. "But don't worry, it has very short words and lots of pictures."
"Funny, Mac, real funny." Richie stuck out his tongue at him, and unwrapped the book.
It had a motorcycle on the cover. Good start. Richie opened it to a random page, and found more motorcycles. He was halfway through a chapter on the history of the Triumph bikes when he heard MacLeod say, "Well, I guess he likes it."
"Sorry." Richie blushed and closed the book. "Got carried away a bit there." Never thought I'd be happy to get clothes and a book.
"There's one more left," Tessa pointed out.
The third box was much smaller and lighter than the others. Richie wanted to hold it to his ear and shake it, but Tessa stopped him.
"Careful, it's fragile."
Curiosity piqued, he tore open the gift wrap and lifted the lid. Inside was a Christmas ornament, a sphere of pale blue glass that shimmered like a soap bubble when Richie held it up to the light. His name was written on one side in gold letters.
"Oh, wow..." Richie breathed. He had a ridiculous feeling that if he talked too loud, or showed too much enthusiasm, the ornament would burst like the bubble it resembled. "Oh, man... Thanks, you guys. This is great. Best presents I ever got."
"So is it our turn now?" Tessa reached for one of the empty boxes Richie had wrapped, but he batted her hand aside.
"Ignore those, Tess, they're decoys." He put his ornament back in the box and jumped to his feet. "I'll go get the real one now."
He had left Mungo and Tease in a large box in his room, playing with a Koosh Ball. Now he lifted them out and put them in their "gift box" -- a basket with a red ribbon attached to the handle. Tease immedeately started clawing at the end of the ribbon, while Mungo sat and groomed himself with an offended air. Richie clutched the basket to his chest, and ran back to the living room.
He expected the same sort of oohs and aahs that he got at Angie's house. What he got instead was dead silence. It grew steadily longer and more awkward, until Tease broke it by sticking his head over the edge of the basket and meowing.
Richie clutched the basket tighter to his chest.
"You don't like them," he said flatly.
"Yes, we do," Duncan said quickly, with Tessa echoing him a second behind, but neither one of them made a move to take the kittens from him. The room grew silent again. Tease, oblivious to his less-than-favorable reception, kept right on chasing the ribbon. Mungo turned over on his back and demanded a belly-rub. Richie obliged automatically, not looking at the kittens. He was still watching Mac and Tessa's faces, trying to figure out what the problem was.
Finally Tessa sighed. "They're lovely, Richie. But I'm allergic. I get asthma attacks. It's pretty bad." She was beginning to sound wheezy already.
Duncan got up. "I'd better open the window or something."
"No, that's all right, I'll put them back in my room," Richie said quickly, and bolted before he could something really embarrasing, like cry. He felt like a total idiot for not considering the possibility of allergies. And now he had no present for MacLeod or Tessa, which made him feel even worse.
Back in his room, he sat on the bed with the basket in his lap. He knew he should come back down, apologize, try not to make the evening any more of a loss, but he wasn't ready just yet. So he just sat there, thinking up names to call himself, until MacLeod knocked on his door.
"Richie? Can I come in?"
Can I stop you? "Sure, Mac, be my guest."
The door opened. MacLeod entered, looking sympathetic, sat down on the edge of the bed, and peered over Richie's shoulder at the kittens.
"They really are cute," he said after a while. "Can I hold one?"
Richie shrugged. MacLeod scooped Mungo out of the basket, and cradled him gently against his shoulder. The kitten fidgeted at first, startled at being picked up by someone other than Richie, but Duncan scratched behind his ears and made soothing noises until he settled down.
"I'm sorry we can't keep them, Richie. I hope you find a good home for them."
"It's okay. Angie will probably take them, she's been wanting them all along."
"Well, that's good, then. You'll still be able to see them."
"I don't care about that!" Richie burst out, and immediately blushed at Mac's skeptical expression. "Well, okay, I do, but that's not the point."
"What is the point, then?"
"You know perfectly well what it is. You guys got me all this great stuff, and I get you nothing."
"It's not important. You didn't have to get us anything."
"But I wanted to!" Richie wished MacLeod wasn't being so damned nice about it. If he wasn't, Richie could've tried being angry at him instead of at himself. "All the stuff you guys have done for me -- not just the presents... Keeping me out of jail, giving me a place to live... and what have I done for you? Some chores around the store. Not exactly an even exchange, you know?"
MacLeod was shaking his head. "Richie. This is not a barter system. We didn't take you in because we wanted gifts, or somebody to do the vacuuming. And it was not a one-way exchange, either. When Tessa and I let you into our lives, you had to let us into yours. When we gave you our trust, you had to give us yours."
"Yeah." Richie sniffed. "That and a buck will get you on the subway."
"Don't belittle yourself. You had a lot at stake. For all you knew, I was a psycho who'd run you through with a sword the moment we were alone. But you were willing to risk it. What did I risk by trusting you? Not much. The worst you could do is run off with the cash box."
"God, Mac." Richie rolled his eyes. "You make it sound like I did you a favor by moving in!"
MacLeod's face showed a trace of impatience, quickly concealed. "Richie, you have to stop thinking of this in terms of favors and exchanges. You and I and Tessa, we're a family now. Not the most conventional kind, maybe, but a family nevertheless. That's all the reason and all the reward we need for doing things for each other, okay?" He put Mungo back into his basket and reached out, in an uncharacteristic gesture, to pull Richie a into brief hug.
Richie had no idea how to respond to this. He felt shaken. He'd been thinking of MacLeod and Tessa as his family for a while now, but he had never assumed that they felt the same way. It was a little overwhelming to find out that they did.
Something must've shown in his face, becuase Duncan suddenly looked concerned.
"Are you okay, Rich?"
"Yeah. It's... it means a lot to me, Mac. What you just said, I mean. Thanks."
"Any time. Come on, let's go back down before Tessa eats all the rum balls."
Back in the living room, the rum balls were still intact, the stereo was playing Christmas music, and Tessa was curled up in an armchair with a glass of eggnog. Richie stopped in the doorway, wondering what he should say to her. Did she share Duncan's sentiments about being a family? Was she angry?
"I'm sorry, Tess," he muttered. "I shouldn't have tried to get you a gift without finding out what you wanted first"
"Nonsense." Tessa got up, smiling, and kissed Richie on the cheek. "You wanted to surprise me. I think that's sweet. And the kittens were a lovely thought. You couldn't have known I'm allergic."
"You're not very mad then?"
"I'm not mad at all. Come on. You haven't put your ornament on the tree yet."
It took awhile, because Richie insisted on finding the perfect spot on the tree, even rearranging some of the other ornaments to do it, but eventually the glass ball took its proper place among the branches, with Richie's name clearly visible. Richie sat back with a satisfied grin, and took a rum ball from a box Tessa held out to him.
"Merry Christmas, Richie."
"Merry Christmas, guys."
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