Universe: A virtual "6th" season wherein "Modern Prometheus" was the finale of season 5 and ignores all events in the "real" season 5 finale and all of season 6, as well as the last movie. This season takes place 1997-1998

Summary: Richie's first Christmas with Mac and Tessa isn't exactly what everyone expected.

Disclaimer: If I owned them why would I waste my time posting to fanfic sites? I'd be off making lots and lots of money! But since I'm not, I therefore don't, nor do I pretend to.

It was bitingly cold out, which wasn't unusual for mid December in Seacouver. Fierce winds scattered brittle brown leaves without mercy until the streets were just as bare as the trees themselves. Scarves whipped about faces and empty plastic bags danced down sidewalks, tripping around parking meters and darting out in front of cars. Salvation Army Santas brought in extra change donated by passersby out of sheer pity. Puddles left over in yards and back alley potholes were frozen solid, much like the ponds in the public parks where children skated after school. The spirit of Christmas tried desperately to penetrate the frozen air, and those who felt it had a twinkle in their eye as they took in the colored lights wrapped around streetlights and circling the empty branches of the sculpted trees downtown. Those who didn't shivered as they stood in place, frustrated with the crowds, and changed the radio station whenever a carol began to play.

The people that crowded the Seacouver mall this eighteenth of December were an odd mix of both, and Richie found that he could tell the difference by seeing who wished him 'Merry Christmas' when they shoved ahead of him in line. He did his very best not to let that bother him though. For the first time in a very long while, he was actually looking forward to Christmas. That was, of course, if he could actually get his shopping done before the big day. There was only a week left until Christmas and he had yet to buy a single present.

"Are you sure this is a good idea, Tess?" Richie asked, or rather, he whined. Angie was at the top of his gift list, and he had no idea what to get her. He had lamented his plight to Tessa and she had taken pity on him, though as she dragged him rather reluctantly into a store that sold nothing but girly toiletries he began to wonder if this kind gesture was really a punishment in disguise.

"Of course," Tessa reassured him. "I have yet to meet a woman who doesn't love bath products."

Richie picked up an oddly shaped purple bottle, unscrewed the cap, took a whiff of the contents, and then made a face. "Whoa!" He coughed a few times, most likely for emphasis. "This stuff is strong enough to drop an ox!"

Tessa favored him with a disbelieving smirk. "And that stuff you lather all over yourself when you go out on dates is any less potent?"

"That's different, Tess," Richie defended his choice in cologne. "A guy's supposed to smell strong."

"Oh? And what are girls supposed to smell like, hmm?"

Richie grabbed the bottle again and read the label. "Lavender and lilac, apparently." Then he cast it aside, lamenting, "this is hopeless, Tess. Angie's apartment doesn't even have a bath tub—just a shower stall."

Tessa frowned pensively. "Well, what did you get her last year?"

"That's just it. I didn't have to shop for her last year." At Tessa's confused look he clarified: "My friends and I do secret Santa. This is the first year I've gotten Angie's name."

"Well you must have had to buy her a gift at some point," Tessa persisted. "What about birthdays?"

"Last year I was broke so I spent the afternoon tuning her bike. The year before that I took her to the movies."

Tessa couldn't help but smile as she shook her head. "You're hopeless, Richie. You know that?"

"Well, yeah," Richie agreed. "That's why you agreed to help me."

Tessa merely laughed. "Come on. There are other stores we might try."

The bath store (as Richie dubbed it) was only marginally crowded. The main thoroughfare through the mall, however, was packed. Richie likened stepping across the threshold to trying to merge into mall traffic from a side street without a light—as Tessa was forced to do when she drove them there. Idly he wondered what the streets of Paris must be like, since Tessa was fearless behind the wheel and often had him clutching the Jesus bar for dear life as she navigated them to the mall. Richie felt no shame in holding onto the strap of Tessa's purse like a small child so that she didn't lose him in the mad dash to the next store.

"There's some nice stuff in here," she said as she pulled him into a jewelry store. "And not all of it is out of your price range."

Willing to try anything once, Richie strolled up to one of the display cases… only to have to consciously keep his jaw from dropping. The most expensive items had four digits after the dollar sign, but Richie suspected that as the cases retreated further inside the store, even more expensive items could be found. Richie wandered through in a daze, glancing at pearl necklaces and diamond rings, and found his hypothesis to be correct. However, Tessa was right, too. With his three hundred dollar Christmas bonus check, he could easily afford some of the items. A pair of garnet earrings caught his eye, set in twenty-four karat gold, on sale for eighty bucks.

"Those are nice," Tessa appraised, and Richie startled slightly. She'd come to stand behind him and peer over his shoulder into the display case without his even noticing her presence.

"They're perfect," Richie breathed, soft affection coloring his voice, though the tails of his sigh were tinged with palpable regret.

"But?" Tessa prompted, slightly confused.

Richie closed his eyes, tearing himself away from the sparkling twin gems. "But they're too expensive."

"But they cost less than a third of your bonus," Tessa saw fit to remind him. The only people Richie had ever mentioned needing to buy for were herself, Duncan, and Angie. If he spent a third of his bonus on each of them he could easily afford those earrings and have money left over since by his own admission he hadn't bought any gifts yet.

"I know," Richie agreed, still sounding regretful. He had his three hundred dollars from the bonus check and another three hundred saved from his weekly pay, however cash in hand was not the issue. "But we set a limit for the secret Santa, and those are way over it."

"Well how much can you spend?"

"Twenty bucks."

Tessa frowned, and Richie wondered if he imagined the brief look of disgust that crossed her face just then. "That's all?" she balked, more than a little surprised.

"Everyone's got different incomes," Richie explained with a non-committal shrug. "It's better than last year though. I could only spend fifteen bucks on Gary last Chanukah."

"What gift did you possibly find for fifteen dollars?" Tessa asked in disbelief, and Richie dutifully ignored the haughtiness that crept into her tone when he answered.

"Gary was into health foods so I found him a tofu cookbook in a used book store. It had all these great notations in the margins about how to change recipes around and stuff."

After spending several months under the same roof with the woman, he'd come to understand that she just didn't understand the impact of her words at times. She had always been one of those people who would donate heavily to charity from the comfort of her own home but would never even think of volunteering at the shelter, or one of the free clinics, or even the orphanage. She had plenty of compassion to spread around but was often sorely lacking in understanding.

"I'm surprised a marked book was allowed for resale," she mused, her frown becoming thoughtful for a moment.

"Oh, you'd be surprised what you can find in the used book store." And he hadn't meant to sound patronizing, really. It just sorta happened.

Yet either Tessa didn't hear it, or didn't care to comment on it. "I probably would," she agreed dismissively. Already her frown returned in full force. "Well, you're not going to find anything here—or in any other jewelry store. And clothes are out of the question as well, but the book store might be an idea. Come on."

Tessa turned abruptly and stalked out of the jewelry store at a brisk pace. Richie watched her go, reminding himself again that it was wrong to get upset with her. Tessa was still one of the nicest people he's ever met and the rest of her good qualities more than made up for what her naiveté brought about. It was just something he would have to deal with, he reminded himself again. Then with a long-suffering sigh he stepped out of the store and began his search for Tessa, who in his distraction he'd let get away from him.

Spotting her in the crowd was thankfully easy enough. Not many women wore white (faux) fur-lined suede jackets in Seacouver. Richie tried his best to catch up to her, but soon found himself running against the current without making much headway in the river of bodies. He finally caught up to her three stores farther down and reached out to grab the strap of her purse so that he could stay with her, but his fingers had barely secured around the thin strip of leather when he felt something hard hit the top of his shoulder.

"What do you think you're doing, punk?"

A mall security guard grabbed him roughly from behind and tried to rip him away from Tessa. He succeeded, but the purse strap in Richie's hand came with him. It tore free of the purse, which fell from Tessa's shoulder onto the ground, only to be kicked away by unsympathetic feet as the other shoppers ignored the small scene happening in their midst. Richie didn't have the chance to catch Tessa's reaction, however, because he was then roughly shoved up against one of the giant pots where the small palm trees grew in the center of the thoroughfare.

"Hey, take it easy buddy," Richie defended. A thick palm had a fistful of shirt at his shoulder and the meaty arm it was attached to pressed across his chest and pinned him against the pot. The guard's weight had Richie's back arching over the lip of the pot so that his feet barely touched the ground. "It's not what you think."

"Oh really," the guard taunted. "I suppose you were just trying to get the lady's attention, to tell her that she left her wallet in Sears?"

"C'mon man," Richie protested as his toes began whisking at air. "We were shopping together and we got separated. I was trying to catch up to her."

"By grabbing her purse?"

"Hey it's better than grabbing at the hood of her jacket!"

"She's too young to be your mother, kid. Why else would a lady with a Prada bag be shopping with a punk kid in ripped jeans and a grubby jacket?"

Richie opened his mouth for one of his patented sarcastic remarks but Tessa's angry voice cut him off.

"That is none of your business!" she hissed at the guard as she stomped towards them. The guard was so taken aback that his grip on Richie loosened enough for the teen to wriggle free. Tessa stepped protectively between him and the guard and Richie couldn't resist looking smug even as he peered out around her.

"Uh, I'm sorry, ma'am," the guard stammered. "But it looked like this kid was trying to steal your purse."

"And from where I stood it looked like you were trying to beat up a defenseless teenager who's barely half your size."

"I'm sorry," the guard repeated, flabbergasted.

Tessa's eyes narrowed almost threateningly. "I'm not the one you need to apologize to."

Richie saw the incredulous look the guard gave them and his smugness deflated, replaced with a tired sort of apathy. "It's ok, Tess," he assured in placating tones. "Let's just go."

With Richie's prompting Tessa convinced herself that it wasn't really worth it. With a final, scathing look at the guard, she allowed Richie to lead her by the elbow back the way they came. That's when he noticed that she had her broken purse tucked securely beneath her other arm.

"I'm sorry," he said sincerely, just loud enough for her to hear him. "I didn't mean to break that."

"It's not your fault Richie," Tessa assured him, a look of disgust plainly evident on her face. "If that guard hadn't manhandled you it wouldn't have happened."

Richie felt the heat of shame slightly coloring his cheeks. "Yeah, but if I wasn't dressed like a hoodlum—" he quoted her terminology for his preferred wardrobe, "—he wouldn't have been watching me."

"I asked Duncan for a new purse for Christmas anyway," Tessa lied instead of agreeing with him. While she grudgingly accepted the ripped jeans as being a misguided fashion statement, Richie's attachment to the 'grubby jacket,' as the guard put it, was beyond her comprehension. The black and green monstrosity was big and bulky yet too short in the sleeves, the zipper broke almost every other day, and it had more patches and loose threads in the lining than should be allowed by the laws of physics before there wasn't enough material to hold it all together. Once again she was reminded of why she bought him a new jacket for Christmas, and could only hope that his old one would last that long.

As the two of them wandered through the crowded bookstore Richie allowed his mind to drift back to his last Christmas. Everyone had exchanged gifts together in Angie's living room. Gary had really loved that cookbook but was in utter disbelief that it cost less than fifteen dollars and demanded that Richie show the receipt to prove it. Richie laughed aloud at the memory. It felt good to be able to laugh at thoughts of Gary again.

All told, that had been a decent Christmas. Gary bought Kyle a Zippo lighter with a pot leaf emblem emblazoned on its flip-top lid, Kyle bought Jimmie a Joan Jett pinup poster, Jimmie spent his limit on acrylic paints and canvas and painted a decent likeness of Larry racing his bike, and Larry had used a referral discount to get Angie a subscription to a motorcycle magazine. Angie's present to him had been the pair of gloves that were currently shoved in his pockets. They were the cheap elastic kind, but they were black, and they were warm, and Richie was grateful for them.

This year was different though. Most notably, of course, was Gary's prominent absence. It had been nearly two months since his death, but the reality that his friend wouldn't be there this Christmas was still difficult to wrap his mind around. Sadly though he wasn't the first friend Richie has had to bury; such was the life of the streets. He had already mailed his tasteful non-denominational holiday greeting card to the Corrells, and he was trying to decide whether or not to stop by sometime before Chanukah ended. He knew this time of year had to be rough on them.

Richie tore his mind away from the depressing aspects of this Christmas. He was supposed to be shopping for Angie, not brooding in the middle of a bookstore. He rounded the corner and found the gifts section, where the journals, bookmarks, and calendars were shelved, and there he met Tessa.

"Any luck?" she asked him.

Richie shook his head. "Nada."

That frown returned to Tessa's face. "It must be hard for you to find tasteful yet inexpensive gifts every year," she mused.

"Not really," Richie negated with a shrug. "I'm just no good at shopping for girls is all."

"But you've known Angie most of your life," Tessa countered. "Surely you know her well enough to be able to find a suitable Christmas present?"

"I guess not," Richie admitted, his shoulders sagging slightly in defeat.

"Well if you're not buying anything here I want to get going," said Tessa. "I don't like carrying my purse like this. I'm paranoid I'll set it down and then leave it somewhere."

Richie chuckled slightly though his lingering dejection despite the blush that crept into his cheeks again. "Sure," he acquiesced. "I think I should be hitting up the discount stores anyway."

Tessa nodded. "Let's go then."

Together they found their way out of the mall and into the parking garage. Richie zipped his jacket part way—where zipper got stuck, and pulled his gloves over his hands. Fortunately the garage sheltered them from the worst of the wind, but the first thing that Tessa did when the car turned over was blast the heat.

"You know," she began shortly after they left the garage. "It's rude to tell people how much you spent on their gifts anyway. What could it hurt if you exceeded your limit? Your friends wouldn't have to know."

"But I'd know, Tess," Richie protested.

"So? It's not like you're going to break the bank. If you can afford to spend a little extra, what's wrong with that?"

"It's wrong because the others can't."

"You're telling me that if one of your friends saw the perfect gift and had the money to buy it that they wouldn't splurge a little?"

"It would make the others feel bad."

"But how, since no one really knows what you've spent? I assume that you do wrap the gifts and remove the price tags."

Richie bit his lip. Sure he removed the price tag, but Gary's cookbook he wrapped in a brown shopping bag, with no ribbon, bow, tag, or card. "I don't want to lie to them, Tess," he protested weakly.

"Well I think you're being silly," Tessa informed him. "If you can afford to do something nice for someone than you should do it. It shouldn't matter what your friends think about it."

Richie sighed silently and didn't answer. He didn't want to argue with Tessa. It really shouldn't have surprised him that she wouldn't be able to understand where he was coming from, and he had to stop letting it affect him like this. Her family had always been wealthy, and then she'd met Duncan. She didn't know what it was like to not get any presents for Christmas, or to have to buy the traditional meal with food stamps. Everything she's ever wanted has been handed to her. Of course she couldn't comprehend his reasons for not exceeding his spending limit when she's never felt the sting of not being able to afford something a simple as a gift for a friend. If she had, she would have never suggested that Richie evoke that type of shame in people as close to him as family.

"Do you think you could drop me off at Angie's?" he asked instead after a lengthy pause. "Maybe her mom will have some ideas."

"That sounds like a good idea," Tessa agreed. "Call us if you need a ride. It's too cold out for you to take the bus."

"Ok," Richie agreed as Tessa took the correct turnoff that would lead them into his old neighborhood. A few minutes later and she double-parked in front of Angie's apartment.

"Remember to call," Tessa reminded him as he climbed out of the car. Richie nodded distractedly and jogged over to the front door. He rung the bell and then danced in place a bit, trying to stay warm. Tessa waited until Mrs. Burke opened the door for him before pulling away.

"Richie!" Mrs. Burke greeted cheerfully.

"Hi Mrs. Burke," Richie greeted in return, shivering slightly.

"Well don't just stand there—come in! Come in, come in, come in!" Richie allowed himself to be ushered inside and Mrs. Burke shut the door behind him.

"Can I take your coat?" she asked, and Richie obliged her. "I'm afraid Angie's at the shelter right now, but she should be home fairly soon. Can I get you anything? I can make hot cocoa."

"Yeah, that'd be great." Richie accepted her offer at sat down at the kitchen table. He watched her fill a mug with water, empty a Swiss Miss packet into it, and put the mug in the microwave. Then she turned to face him.

"How have you been, Richie? Do you still live above that antique store?"

Richie's smile came easily as he answered. "Yeah."

"Do you like it? Angie said it's nice."

"I do," Richie admitted easily. "They owners are great people. They've been real good to me."

"I'm glad, Richie. I'm not ashamed to admit that I was worried for you when you turned eighteen, about you being on your own like that; but now look at you. You've got a decent job and everything!"

Richie blushed under her sudden praise. "I've got Mac and Tessa to thank for that. They gave me the job way before they offered me their spare bedroom."

"You've got our Lord to thank for that," Mrs. Burke corrected him gently. "It was so very Christian of them to take you in like that." Just then the microwave beeped. She removed the mug of cocoa and placed it down in front of Richie, along with a spoon to stir it with.

Richie stirred it gently and watched the steam swirl and rise from the hot liquid. Then he scooped up a spoonful, blew on it, and sipped gingerly. He smiled brightly at Mrs. Burke for effect. The cocoa was still way too hot to drink.

"Well, I'm sure Angie will be here soon. I'm sorry to make you wait like this, it's just that the shelter's so understaffed that Angie's been volunteering more and more hours. Some days I don't know when she's coming home until she calls me."

"Wow. You'd think that people would be more willing to volunteer around Christmas time," Richie observed

"Yes, you would," Mrs. Burke agreed sadly. "But you know how it is; everyone's always rushing around, having to shop, having to visit family, unable to do a single good turn for another human being in the midst of all the hustle and bustle."

Richie nodded sadly. He'd volunteered at the shelter once or twice, but really only to spend time with Angie. Perhaps it was the holiday spirit, but now he was feeling slightly guilty about it. After all, it's not like Duncan and Tessa wouldn't give him the time off for something like that.

"She's even volunteering on Christmas eve," Mrs. Burke continued. "I'm proud of her for doing it, but it would have been nice if she could have gone with me to see my parents' in Cloverbrook. Her cousins are going this year and she hasn't seen them in ages."

This caught Richie by surprise. "Really?"

Mrs. Burke nodded. "I don't think she knew her cousins were coming when she volunteered, but still, it'll be a shame that she'll miss them."

Richie nodded thoughtfully. "Do you know what her hours are on Christmas Eve?"

"She's working through the dinner rush. By the time she gets out it'll be too late for her to make the drive out to the country—and I don't want her trying it on her bike, besides. It's supposed to snow."

"It is?" Richie sounded oddly hopeful. Seacouver hadn't had a white Christmas in nearly ten years.

Mrs. Burke favored him with a smile. "That's what all the forecasters are saying. It's supposed to start snowing sometime after dinner on Christmas Eve."

"Wow," Richie exclaimed with soft reverence. "A white Christmas. Wouldn't that be something?"

"It'll certainly be a change from the rain we've had these past few years. Always makes everything look so dreary."

Richie nodded. He took a test sip of his cocoa and found it cool enough to drink. That gave him the perfect cover for the lapse in conversation. His mind was already racing, taking the information Mrs. Burke gave him and formulating a plan. He could easily use the twenty dollars he was allotted to put gas in the T-bird. If it wasn't snowing he could drive Angie to her grandparents' house and if it was, surely Mac wouldn't mind the drive. He finished his cocoa in one long gulp and then smiled broadly.

"Thanks, Mrs. Burke. I think you've just solved the riddle of what I can get Angie for Christmas."

Mrs. Burke was obviously confused, but she returned the smile anyway, even with the confusion still plainly visible in her eyes. "Oh. Glad to be of help, dear."

Richie stood and leaned across the table to plant a kiss on Mrs. Burke's cheek. "And thanks for the cocoa," he said as he stood back up. He glanced at the clock on the wall and noted the time. "If I hustle I can just make the next bus."

Mrs. Burke frowned slightly. "Oh. Are you sure it's not too cold out? I could give you a lift…"

"Nah. The buses are heated. And besides, I'm not going straight home."

"Oh, well, if you're sure dear," said Mrs. Burke as she stood up. She walked over to the coat rack to retrieve Richie's racing jacket when suddenly the front door opened.

"Hey mom, I—Richie!"

"Hey, Angie," Richie waved to her as he accepted his jacket from Mrs. Burke. "I just stopped by for some of your mom's hot chocolate."

Angie smirked at him. "It's a store brand, Richie," she admonished him. "What are you doing here?" Her tone was playful, showing that despite her words, she was actually pleased—and curious, to see him.

"Hey I'll have you know that you've got a whole box of Swiss Miss sitting on your counter," Richie pointed out with a grin.

Angie blinked in surprise. "Mom?"

"It's Christmas, dear. I thought we could splurge a little—especially when your friends stop by for the gift swap."

Angie's face broke into a large grin and she hugged her mother. "Thanks, mom." After the brief yet affectionate embrace she pulled away and turned to face Richie again. "So you stopped by here for hot chocolate?" She asked, teasingly disbelieving.

"Actually, I wanted to ask your mom what I should get you for Christmas."

"Oh?" Angie turned back to her mother. "What did you tell him?"

Mrs. Burke's face still reflected her earlier confusion. "That's just it, I didn't tell him anything."

"Sure you did," Richie informed her. Then his serious expression melted into a smirk. "You just don't know it yet."

Mrs. Burke was clearly still confused, but she nodded anyway.

"Uh oh, mom, what did you tell him?" Angie asked with playfully elevated concern.

Richie just grinned conspiringly and wrapped an arm around Mrs. Burke's shoulders. "Uh-uh-ah! That would be cheating."

Angie mock-scowled at Richie's smug expression. "Of course you would know," she teased. "And who tried rummaging through my closet last year to find my gift for him?"

Richie had the good sense to blush at the accusation, especially when Mrs. Burke started laughing.

"You didn't!"

"Oh, Richie's always been a nosy-parker," Angie told her mom. "Last year it was snooping. The year before that, bribery!"

"Hey just because I happened to know exactly what Maria wanted Larry to get her…"

"But she was your foster sister, Richie—that's cheating!"

"What cheating?" Richie defended. "She wanted Larry to get her a necklace, and Larry happened to know what Kyle got me. That's not bribery, it's trading."

"Well it's still cheating!" Angie protested with just as much amusement as Richie.

By now Mrs. Burke was shaking her head, laughing to herself but trying to keep it quiet. "You two are incorrigible, you know that?"

"Me?" Angie balked with mock-incredulousness. "What I do?"

Her mom just continued to laugh, and Richie gave her an affectionate squeeze with his arm before dropping it to his side at last.

"Not that it mattered," he lamented. "They broke up."

"Oh dear," Mrs. Burke interjected. "I hope you weren't caught in the middle, Richie."

Richie winced. "Well, not really, I guess," he offered lamely. "Uh, Angie? Do you think you could give me a ride? I… I've got some things to take care of."

Angie's eyes held sympathy. "Sure, Rich. Just let me grab my spare helmet."

As Angie walked back through the apartment towards her bedroom Richie plastered a smile on his face.

"Thanks again for the cocoa, Mrs. Burke."

"Oh. You're quite welcome, dear. If I don't see you again, have a merry Christmas."

"You too," Richie returned as cheerfully as he could through that fake smile.

"Ready?" Angie asked as she approached them again, carrying her spare helmet in one hand.


Angie tossed the helmet to him, which he easily caught. "Then let's go." She walked past him to the front door. "My bike's chained in the alley."

"Cool." Richie nodded once to Mrs. Burke, then waltzed himself out the door.

Angie suddenly turned back in the doorway. "Oh, mom, I picked up another late shift tonight. If I'm not home before, I'll be done at ten."

"Ok, dear," Mrs. Burke acknowledged with a fond smile. "Stay warm out there."

Angie took that moment to wrap her scarf about her neck and zip her pleather jacket up all the way. "That's the plan. See you."

Mrs. Burke nodded to her daughter and Angie departed. She found Richie waiting patiently beside her bike.

"So where to?" she asked cheerfully. To her surprise, Richie sighed tiredly.

"Home I guess."

Angie blinked in confusion. "But I thought you had things to do?"

Richie fidgeted nervously, running a hand through his shaggy mop of strawberry blond curls. "Well, I do still have shopping to do," he admitted.

Angie's confusion soon melted into a pensive frown. "I'm sorry, Rich. I didn't mean to bring that up."

"Hey, don't worry about it," Richie quickly brushed off her concern. "Water under the bridge, right?"

Angie's expression didn't change. "I dunno," she challenged. "You tell me."

Richie sighed again and allowed his shoulders to slump, dropping his gaze to the pavement as he did so. When he looked up again his eyes were tired. "I should be over it by now," he lamented.

"Have you heard from them recently?"

Richie shook his head. "Not since I moved into the loft."

"Do you still have their address?"

"I lost it when my apartment blew up."

"Well, you've got their name, right?" Angie asked hopefully. "Can't you call information or something?"

"I don't remember the town," Richie admitted. "What do I do? Dial 411 and ask for a Sophie Tompkins somewhere in the state of New Jersey?"

Angie sighed at Richie's defensive tone. She knew from hard experience that any rational part of the conversation was over. "I'm sorry."

Once again Richie shrugged it off. "Eh, what are you gonna do, right? And it's not like it should matter anyway. They moved over a year ago."

Angie bit her lip. While she loved Richie to death, dealing with his mercurial moods was often taxing. Sophie Tompkins had fostered Richie for nearly two years. She'd chosen him because he was the same age as her daughter Maria; and perhaps to fill the void left after her husband's heart attack. Maria was a good sister for Richie, Angie remembered. Her grief over her father's death enabled Richie to reach out to her, and the two of them bonded almost instantly. Though she had her own friends she fit in well with his, and even had a brief romantic fling with Larry before the relationship was cut short by circumstance.

Richie had thrived in the Tompkins home, doing well in school and even making the basketball team. When Sophie's job transferred her to New Jersey she had tried to bring Richie with them, but because he was still a ward of Washington State that would have only be possible if she legally adopted him, and by then it would have been impossible to complete the adoption before his eighteenth birthday. Though it was hard on all of them Sophie moved with her job. She and Maria were now three thousand miles away, and Richie had wound up in the custody of what proved to be his final foster father before finally earning his freedom.

They had all promised to stay in touch though, and Angie was certain that they had—until Richie lost his apartment. Now their letters would bounce back through the postal service to New Jersey, and without a return address Richie had no idea where they were. If Angie had known that last fact, she never would have mentioned Maria so casually. As much as Richie claimed that he should be 'over it,' it had always been clear—to those who chose to look, that he never quite let go of the pain.

To those who chose to look, Richie never quite let go of a lot of things.

"Come on," she said at length. "I've got stuff to do too."

Richie nodded mutely and put the helmet on. Then he climbed on the bike behind Angie and they were underway less than a minute later.

Above them, the deepening Seacouver twilight revealed the first light of frozen stars.