Two hundred and thirty dollars was a lot of money, especially when you needed it in a hurry. Richie had three days before he needed to return to the jewelry store, and he couldn't borrow that much in time without arousing suspicion, nor could he ask for an advance on his next paycheck for that same reason. He couldn't find any offers for odd jobs, even in his old neighborhood, as it was too late to be mowing lawns and raking leaves and too early to shovel. That left two options, the first of which he refused outright. That only left one real option, and it wasn't going to be easy.

"What's in the bag?" Tessa asked him, referring to the bulky-looking backpack he was carrying. She was cleaning her workshop and so their paths crossed as he was leaving.

"My cassettes," Richie answered. "I've replaced most of them with CDs anyway, so I thought I'd donate them."

Tessa positively beamed at him. "That's very generous of you, Richie."

Richie half shrugged, blushing slightly. "Like I said, I don't really need them now that I've got the CDs."

That did nothing to lessen Tessa's obvious pride in him. "Are you giving them to the shelter?"

"No, Angie's mom's church runs a thrift shop."

Tessa nodded. She vaguely remembered Richie telling her about Mrs. Burke's devout beliefs. "Will you be back for lunch?" she asked, checking her watch. It was ten a.m.

"Should be," Richie answered. "This won't take long. Chicken soup?" he asked with a rather pathetic plea in his voice.

Tessa shook her head, smiling. "If you want."

"Great! Thanks Tess!" And then he was out the door.

Of course, he hadn't been wholly honest with Tessa. The thrift shop was really a pawn shop, and though it was across the street from a church in his old neighborhood, Richie honestly didn't know if it was the one Mrs. Burke attended.

His entire cassette collection earned him a grand total of sixty-five dollars. As the clerk counted out the bills Richie did his damnedest to remember that this was all for a worthy cause. Tessa, whom he knew thought him cheap, had praised his selflessness not a half hour ago. What would she say if she saw that his charity came with a price, regardless of the motive? Remembering Tessa's broach mostly eased the hollow feeling the crept into his gut as he pocketed the money, but not entirely.

Richie returned to the loft in time for lunch; chicken soup as Tessa had promised him. It wasn't much, just two cans of Campbell's heated up, but it went down nicely on bitingly cold days like today, and he had a nostalgic fondness for it.

"So what are we doing for Mac again?" he asked her around another spoonful. The Highlander's birthday was only two days away.

"He said that he didn't want anything special," Tessa answered him.

"Why not? I thought four hundred was like a landmark birthday or something."

"Most adults do not look forward to those landmarks," Tessa reminded him dryly.

"True," Richie conceded. "But wouldn't an immortal want to celebrate how long they've lived?"

"You seemed to have confused immortals with teenagers," Tessa pointed out with abject humor.

"I dunno," Richie hedged. "I don't think I'd mind getting older half as much if it didn't involve gray hairs and arthritis."

"You'll just have to ask him yourself during his birthday dinner."

Richie nodded. "Fair enough. So, are we eating in or going out?"

"Eating in. I thought I'd cook something special."

Richie made a face. "It's not haggis is it?"

"What if it is?" Tessa challenged with an arched eyebrow.

"Then I'm sticking the side dishes."

"If you insist," Tessa acquiesced. "Do peas and couscous work for you?"

Richie's eyes widened and his expression registered abject horror for the five seconds it took for him to realize that Tessa was teasing him. While she may serve haggis to MacLeod on his birthday, she certainly wouldn't also pick side dishes that Richie found equally stomach-turning.

"Very funny," he groused, though he was smiling slightly when he said it. "What are we really having?"

Tessa allowed herself to laugh at last, now that she no longer needed to pretend to be serious. "Lamb," she answered through the lingering smile. "With roasted potatoes."

Richie visibly sagged with relief. "I knew you couldn't be that cruel."

Tessa simply laughed again as she stood to clear the table.

After lunch Richie returned to his room. He still had to come up with a hundred and sixty-five dollars. The cassettes were an easy choice because, with the easy lie, no one would question their absence. Of course, this meant that he couldn't pawn his CDs now. At least, not many of them. In hindsight it probably would have been smarter to keep the cassettes and pawn the more valuable CDs, but retrograding would have required a fancier lie and one that he didn't think he could have pulled off. Still, it should be possible for him to part with at least some of his CDs. They currently had a small bookshelf all to themselves, but if he stacked them on top of each other instead of standing them in line…

All he had to do was clean his room a bit. The near constant mess he deliberately lived in always made it appear as though he had more possessions than he actually did.

Apart from the CDs there were few items in his room that would be worth selling, namely his boom box, his TV, and his VCR. Unfortunately their disappearances would be easily noticed. Richie debated his options as he thoroughly de-cluttered his room. He thought about pawning his VHS tapes, but they posed the same problem as the CDs.

In the end he wound up cleaning out the bookshelf that had housed his VHS collection. What remained of his CDs and VHS tapes were now consolidated in the same bookshelf, and he could only hope that stacking them differently would obscure the truth of the collections' reductions. Then he moved some of the decorative items and knickknacks from his dresser and nightstand into the empty bookshelf, weeded through the piles of laundry until everything clean was put away and everything dirty was in the hamper, and called it clean. Mac and Tessa would be pleased, at any rate, as well as (hopefully) oblivious.

"Going out?" MacLeod was at the table wrapping a large box in bright green paper when Richie tried to make his exit.

"Yeah," Richie answered, gearing up for the eventual lie. "I won't be late."

"Going shopping?" Duncan asked, eying the backpack Richie had slung over his shoulder. Fortunately he didn't notice that it had a few extra corners.

Richie nodded smoothly. "With Angie. I'm helping her with her secret Santa gift."

"Going to the mall?"

"Maybe. I'm meeting her at the shelter — she gets off shift in twenty minutes."

Duncan didn't detect anything amiss with that statement and so he nodded dismissively, returning to his wrapping. "Have fun then. I doubt you'll be home for dinner?"

"Heh, probably not," Richie was forced to 'admit.' It would look suspicious if he came home too early from a night of hanging with friends. "See ya."

Richie left the loft with an unpleasant taste in his mouth. He hated lying to Duncan perhaps more than he hated lying to Tessa, seeing as how there were never any pretenses or expectations with the Highlander. The fact that for once the lies were necessary and the excuse a worthy one didn't help much either. Especially since now he was on his own for dinner. As he drove his bike back to the pawn shop Richie tried to decide if he could afford to blow some of his expected earnings on fast food and sent an errant prayer vaguely heavenward that Angie wouldn't call while he was out.

This time he left the pawn shop with an even fifty bucks. Of course, he still had at least two hours to kill before he could return to the loft without having to answer questions about the uncharacteristic earliness of his evening. Richie's growling stomach decided the dinner question for him, much to his chagrin. He would have liked to have put off eating until he returned to the loft so to save money, but if he didn't eat when he was hungry he could expect a headache. With a dejected sigh he decided to drive to the mall after all. He could get something cheap yet decent in the food court, and then he'd be able to answer the eventual questions about mall traffic without having to make something up.

When exactly he switched from favoring lies to preferring the truth, Richie didn't exactly know.

The next morning left Richie with two days to come up with one hundred and nineteen dollars. He spent every spare moment of his opening shift in the store debating what to do next. His television and VCR were out of the question as he'd never be able to explain their absence. His boom box he might get away with though. It would be easy to convince Mac and Tessa that Angie had casually mentioned that the shelter needed one and that he could easily survive with just his disc-man, which he really preferred anyway…

"I couldn't help but notice you cleaned your room." Tessa voice snagged his attention. A quick glance at his watch told Richie that his shift was over.

"Yeah," he admitted sheepishly. "I made a mess of it trying to find all my tapes yesterday."

Tessa arched an amused eyebrow. "You mean you could tell the difference?"

"Funny," Richie deadpanned, though immediately afterwards he was laughing good-naturedly at the barb.

"Well I hope you keep it that way. Your room looks so much nicer clean."

"I'll take it under advisement," Richie replied as he came out from behind the counter at last. "Well, I'm outta here."

"Oh? Going somewhere?"

"I'm meeting Angie at the shelter," Richie easily lied.

"Are you going shopping again?"

"Nah, I just wanna drop off my boom box. They want to play some holiday music but their tape player broke so I'm lending them mine." Once again he felt his insides burn from the pride in the smile she graced him with.

"Well you've certainly caught the spirit of the season," she praised.

"I just wanna help spread a little cheer," he demurred, blushing more from shame than from embarrassment — not that anyone could tell the difference.

"That's a fine ambition."

"Yeah, well, don't let it get out, ok? I'd hate to lose my rep."

Tessa grinned at him and shook her head. "Whatever you say, Richie."

The redirect worked and Richie was able to make his escape without having to suffer more of Tessa's good opinions. To think that only a few days ago he had been on the brink of despair for hearing how lowly she'd thought of him. For some reason, knowing how highly she thought of him at this moment almost felt worse.

Back in his room, Richie shoved his boom box into a duffel bag. It was top of the line, with two tape decks and a CD player, and it was the sight of those tape decks that gave him a sudden flash of inspiration. Moments later Richie was digging through the bottom drawer of his desk, looking for his old walk-man. He hadn't used it since he bought the disc-man, but he found it at the bottom of the drawer and hoped it still worked. It didn't have batteries though, and even if he swapped some into it he didn't have a tape to test it with, hence why he no longer needed it. He added it to the duffel and then zipped the bag shut with a pensive frown. The walk-man wouldn't be missed, but unfortunately his boom box might. If either of them asked, he could always claim that he'd decided to let the shelter keep it. After all, it's not like he couldn't afford to buy a new one.

When he hoisted the duffel over his shoulder Richie fervently wished that he could confess his lies to Angie so that she couldn't accidentally reveal them. However, that hearkened back to his original argument over why he couldn't buy her those garnet earrings. How could he admit to her that he'd overspent on his Christmas presents this year when she knew he only had three presents to buy and a budget greater than the entire secret Santa pool to buy them with? Back when he'd been chronically unemployed (and a few other things, besides), he used to dream of what it would be like once he'd 'made it,' and what it would be like to finally have a disposable income. Guilt had never factored into those dreams.

At least such thoughts kept him from regretting that he didn't buy the earrings.

It turned out his walk-man wasn't worth much, but the boom box was another story. The grand total added up to the very nice sum of one hundred and ten dollars. Richie was grinning from ear to ear as he watched the clerk count out the money.

Unfortunately, some quick mental math caused the smile to fall rather quickly. He was still nine bucks short and he'd run out of things to pawn. Tessa had already seen the new state of his room, and with it being clean for once it wouldn't be easy to remove anything. Not that he had much left that held more than sentimental value anyway. Aside from his TV and VCR of course, but those items were out of the question. He couldn't use the shelter excuse again, and a lie about taking one of them to the repair shop probably wouldn't live long enough for his next check to clear.

"Something else I can do for you?" the clerk asked him. He'd been standing at the counter, money momentarily forgotten in his hands as his mind wandered over the dilemma rather than staying in the here and now.

Richie blinked, offered a sheepish grin that didn't meet his eyes, and shoved the bills into his wallet. He was contemplating removing the saddle bags from his bike, but again such an absence would be too prominent to risk. Then suddenly, as if by chance, he glanced down and saw salvation.

"How much could I get for this?" he asked as he unfastened his watch. The clerk took it from him and studied it for a moment.

"Five bucks," he answered eventually, handing the watch back to Richie.

Richie's hope deflated. "Could I get you to go for nine?" he asked pleadingly.

The clerk gave him a flat stare. "It ain't worth that much, kid." And he was right. The face was scratched and the leather band was falling apart. He'd inherited it from Gary, who'd worn it for years. Richie had coveted it from the moment he laid eyes on it, even as time had been less than kind. The Corrells had given it to him some time after Gary's funeral. He'd always meant to at least replace the band, but like Tessa and her broach, he just hadn't yet gotten around to it. If only he'd taken the time…

"Please?" Richie all but begged. "I only need nine more bucks and I can afford everything on my gift list."

"Six," the clerk conceded as though it were a major concession.

"Eight? In the spirit of Christmas?"

"I'm an atheist," the clerk replied impatiently with a false grin, "and six's my final offer."

Richie hung his head, half a nod, and let the watch gently tumble out of his fingers and onto the counter. He couldn't bring himself to look as the clerk scooped it up, but he did manage to glance up again when he heard the cash register ding opened. Now he truly had nothing left, and he was still three dollars short.

One dollar and ninety-eight cents short. Richie had scoured the apartment, but all he found beneath the couch cushions, in the basket on the washing machine, and in every drawer outside of the master bedroom amounted to a grand total of two quarters, four dines, one nickel, and seven pennies. Richie lay sprawled across his bed, staring at the ceiling, with the pile of change sitting on his nightstand. He still needed a buck ninety-eight, and none of the solutions he came up with to find it sat well with him.

He knew Mac kept pocket change atop his dresser. He wouldn't take it.

Tessa probably had some loose coins in the bottom of her purse. He wouldn't look.

He could easily abscond with some of the petty cash in the store register as a two-dollar deficit could have been chalked up to a simple accounting error. He didn't care.

No way, no how, in no shape or form would Richie ever steal from Mac and Tessa again, even if it was just loose change, even if he was only borrowing without permission and could pay them back before they ever found out. He'd come up with something better, or he'd walk into that jewelry store one dollar and ninety-eight cents short and pray the jeweler had more compassion than the pawn shop clerk.

For the time being, something better wound up being a walk. It was still mid afternoon, and Richie decided that the fresh air would help clear his head. His wrist felt naked without Gary's watch, and past memories of his whole world riding on his ability to find spare change began an unwanted parade through the darker recesses of his mind.

As Richie wound his way down the narrow, affluent streets of the Heights, he kept his eyes peeled for coins discarded on the sidewalk and tried to come up with more reliable way to get the money. He thought about giving blood, but then he remembered his all-too-recent hospital stays, and the surgery that would prevent him from being eligible for a few months yet. He thought about panhandling, but in this neighborhood that would get him busted for loitering and he wasn't in the mood to trudge back to the loft to get his bike.

Richie eventually made his way to the Seacouver Commons, but to his dismay the fountain was off and its pool had frozen over. Just as well, he mused dejectedly as he collapsed onto a bench nearby. Supposed to be bad luck anyway.

Richie halted the pity party when he noticed that it was getting dark. This being the day before the solstice, it was still rather early so at least he wouldn't be late for dinner by the time he got back. Tired, frozen, depressed, and still a buck ninety-eight short yes, but not late. Richie snorted in derision for such a meager silver lining as he stood from the bench and began the long trek home.

He'd made it most of the way there when he heard it: the loud peal of a Salvation Army Santa's bell. His eyes swiftly swept over the area, and he found him instantly; thin, red suited, black sideburns sticking down below the red Santa hat, and false beard dangling awkwardly from his chin. A thoroughly miserable-looking young man, completely failing to embody any aspect of the cultural icon he was supposed to incarnate, except perhaps for the redness in his cheeks and nose stemming from too many hours out here in the cold. Richie felt a wave of sympathy for the man ringing his bell in a dilapidated metronome. Yet there was something more sad than lazy about the picture he presented, as though the spirit of goodwill he was supposed to represent was being pigeonholed where it didn't quite fit, or that too little of it was being stretched across too vast an expanse, exposing its transparency.

The chill wind that suddenly stung his exposed flesh snapped Richie out of his introspective mood and back to the present. His eyes drifted from the cold, bored Santa and to his open-topped collection pot, dangling at hip level from a rickety tripod. In that instant, he knew that he had his solution at last. In that same instant, he knew that he would hate himself for it.

He didn't know how long he stood there frozen in the sea of people, staring at the farcical Santa and his collection pot. There were numerous bills in there, and an insurmountable pile of coins. It would be so easy…

… And that's what scared him. Never in all his life, even with the mile-long thieving-related rap sheet, had he been tempted to steal from charity. Never before — when the stealing had been for survival, for frivolous things, or even for the adrenaline rush — had he even considered the temptation that now held him in a vice-like grip. Through the crippling indecision, Richie had to wonder what type of person that made him, that for Tessa he would shamelessly rob a Salvation Army Santa.

He had to wonder what type of person that made Tessa.

It was these thoughts though that broke the spell. Just as swiftly as it had seized him, the notion passed. Richie felt slightly dizzy in its wake, but that might have been from how quickly he turned on his heels and bolted back down the street in the other direction.

It took him longer that it should have to make it back to the loft. Mac and Tessa were probably worried about him. Even still, he didn't much care, so grateful he was to be home again. Richie the Thief had never lived here, and that alone was comfort enough.

Or so he'd thought, before he found himself bent over the slop sink in Tessa's workshop, throwing up.

When at last his stomach calmed Richie ran the water, flushing his sickness down the drain. He held a hand under the water and used it to wipe his mouth, then replaced it in the stream to wash it off. When the sink was clean again he shut the faucet off and dried his hand hastily on his jeans. The face that stared back at him in the paint- and water-stained mirror looked two days dead.

"Where have you been?" Duncan asked him when he entered the loft. He was laying out wrapping materials on the table — obviously he and Tessa had finished dinner without him.

"Went for a walk," Richie explained tiredly.

"For three hours?" Duncan sounded slightly incredulous.

"Was a long walk."

Duncan took a moment to study the boy. His face was flushed and his eyes seemed slightly glazed — not unexpected considering he'd just spent three hours out in the cold. Still, he couldn't help the sudden feeling of foreboding.

"Tessa left the casserole in the oven for you if you're hungry," he informed the teenager. Richie's appetite was the best litmus test for his health and mood.

"Not hungry," Richie dismissed. "Maybe later."

Simplistic answers and no appetite, Duncan mused. Yes, something was definitely up.

"Why don't you shower then? You look half frozen." There was mild concern coloring the Highlander's voice, and he didn't try to hide it.

"'S not that cold," Richie mumbled around a half shrug.

Duncan's slow nod revealed his skepticism. "You should shower anyway. It'll make you feel better."

"Maybe," Richie conceded before he could stop himself. The odd response caught Duncan's attention and the teenager couldn't long withstand the Highlander's scrutinizing gaze.


"Shower sounds good," Richie cut off Duncan's hesitant attempt to… ask whatever it was he was going to ask. Then he flashed his most plastic grin and proceeded down the hallway towards the bathroom, leaving a confused and moderately concerned Highlander staring after him.

Richie stayed in the shower until the water ran cold. While he warmed up soon enough, no amount of scrubbing and rinsing was able to make him feel clean again.