The late afternoon foot-traffic became hurried- even more so than usual- as the skies over New York City darkened, making a threat of an imminent downpour. Her senses sharpening in response to the change in atmosphere, a slim, rather scruffy hound weaved through the many sets of legs, driven by a nagging hunger. Rita had been given the responsibility of providing sustenance to Fagin and the gang, something that was becoming a greater challenge as the city descended into winter. Strong winds and scattered downpours made it clear that the change in season was at hand. Not one to complain, Rita nonetheless had little enthusiasm for the wintry weather that was soon to come. Her thin coat and lack of body fat meant that she felt the cold right down to her bones and it took very little for her to become ill and lose weight. It was uncomfortable, sometimes frightening, and always a little embarrassing, and Rita had resolved to be prepared this winter, keeping herself well fed before the cold had a chance to get to her. That though, was easier said than done- opportunities had been rather thin on the ground over the past few days, and everyone was that bit hungrier than usual. Rita had managed to get her paws on small pieces of food, but nothing substantial enough to feed the whole gang. It was frustrating, but nothing she hadn't gotten through before. She wouldn't be going home without food for her family, it was as simple as that.
Several months had passed since the gang had gotten out from under the looming shadow of the menacing Sykes, and all in all, life was pretty sweet. Fagin was happier than he'd been in a long time- no longer needing to fear being ripped apart by killer dogs had that effect- and through the summer months the living had been easy. The days were spent running wild around the city, causing trouble, and just hanging out, at ease with the world. Rita knew, however, that they'd have to step up their game again soon.
After wandering for a long while, Rita was tempted to a cafe by the smells that wafted her way. While most of the customers were sitting inside out of the way of the cold wind, a couple were sitting outdoors under an umbrella. Rita watched from nearby, waiting for a sign that the diners were sufficiently engrossed for her to make her move. To her delight, the woman's hat was blown from her head, and she hurriedly left the table, followed by her partner who scrambled to help her retrieve it. With both diners distracted, it was a near perfect opportunity, and Rita rushed in to grab whatever of their lunch that she could. Her attempt to snatch the man's steak was made the more difficult by table cloth which was flapping around in the way of her face, preventing a quick swipe.
"Oy!" came a startled yell. The man had turned to see the dog up at the table, going for their meal. He ran over, shouting and waving his wife's hat.
Unable to get hold of the steak quickly enough, Rita made a hasty retreat, furious that she'd missed her chance. It had really been one of those days; a whole lot of near misses and nothing to show for her efforts. She hated to give up when the others had trusted her to find them something to eat, and walked off, trying to stay positive. Rita took the responsibility of bringing food home very seriously- certainly more than some of her companions seemed to, and did not want to face the shame of failing in her mission. She knew that no one else would mind all that much, it had been a tough few days after all, but it mattered to her. Rita had her pride after all.
For several more hours Rita searched without luck, and she became more and more frustrated, but as the sky was starting to darken, something finally caught her eye. A pizza delivery car was parked outside a house, the delivery man had- unwisely, left the door open as he'd gone up to the house with the family's pizzas. As quietly and quickly as possible, Rita went over to investigate. As the delivery man chatted at the doorway oblivious, Rita slipped into the car, and whilst carefully keeping out of sight, discovered an as yet undelivered pizza. She carefully picked the box up in her teeth and manoeuvred herself out of the car. The pizza deliverer turned around as he heard her get out, but by the time he ran over it was already too late. Even encumbered with a box of pizza, she was fast and agile. The man swore angrily.
It wasn't all that easy to run through the city with a large, awkward box to carry, but Rita was relieved and happy, and didn't mind one bit. Jumping between cars was all but impossible with such a cumbersome object in her jaws, so she resigned herself to taking the slower means of travel; walking through the streets and alleys. By this time it was quite late, and as she came out into the open air near the docks the cold was biting and the howling wind tugged at her fur. She wanted to get home, to rest after a long day. As her anticipation for the relative comfort of home grew, Rita felt an unnerving feeling that someone was watching her. She looked around, half expecting to have to fight to keep her prize, to see Dodger walking over from behind.
"Not just a pretty face, huh, Rita?" he said, eyeing the box that Rita held in her mouth. Even from the distance he could smell it; and was made all the more ravenous.
Rita dropped her prize to the ground and wagged her tail in greeting. "But of course you already knew that." she replied, smiling at him. There was no one she'd rather have sneak up behind her than her closest friend. "I take it you're out late after a busy day of flirting with every woman in the city?"
"Nah, what do ya take me for?" Dodger laughed, as Rita raised an eyebrow at him. "I've been 'round to see the kid. There's been a bit of drama over there, so who better to help?"
"Is Oliver all right?" Rita asked, concerned. In the months since they met the little cat, Oliver had never been far from Dodger's thoughts, and the mutt spent as much time with him as possible, despite how far removed their respective lives were. The bond between the two of them may have formed quickly, but it was strong. As much as he hated to talk about it, letting Oliver go had been a great wrench for Dodger and a part of him was still struggling to get over it. Rita had worried a lot about Dodger in the early days, but he seemed to be doing better.
"He's fine, there's just been a lot happenin'. You can come over with me tomorrow if you want, put your mind at rest. But don't worry about it, everything's fine."
Rita studied his face carefully; she knew that even if Dodger was worried about something that he'd do his best to make certain it was well hidden. Satisfied that Dodger was genuinely unconcerned, she picked up the box again and continued on her way, now walking alongside her friend.
"Ya know," Dodger said with a slight grin and a sudden gleam in his eyes, "We could sit down somewhere together and have a little bite to eat, just the two of us."
Rita sighed, and put the box back down to respond. "Dodge, we've got to get back. I don't think it would go down well if we ate all the food."
"I dunno, I think some pizza would go down pretty well..."
"You know what I meant." She went to pick up the box, but found herself looking back to Dodger first. "How about tomorrow night?" she asked, feeling hopeful. Trust Dodger to choose an inappropriate time to make a move on her. "If you're not doing anything."
"Absitively yes, baby." Dodger replied with a characteristically cocky grin.
Dodger took a turn at carrying the box to give Rita a break, as it wasn't the easiest thing to hold comfortably in one's mouth. The two continued on their way, imagining that the others must surely be hungry, and wondering what was taking such a long time.
Tired from battling the wind and with damp fur from a fall of rain, Dodger and Rita finally arrived back at the old barge with dinner. Einstein, Tito and Francis had retreated to the shelter of the rickety boat a long time ago and had been waiting impatiently for their companions, and -more importantly- food. They met the newcomers with great enthusiasm and wide eyes.
"Woah, pizza! Nice job, Dodger man!" Tito bounced over, delighted to see that they had something substantial to eat; it had been a few days since the last time.
Einstein was chasing his tail in wild excitement, all the time chanting, "Pizza, pizza, pizza, pizza!"
"Actually, dinner's brought to you today by my lovely assistant, Rita. I just helped carry it home." Dodger told them, thinking he probably shouldn't take all the credit this time. If he were to give a dramatic tale of his success every day, his stories would lose their impact.
The others looked slightly surprised and thanked Rita, or at least grunted out sounds that sounded somewhat like 'thank you'- they did after all have rather full mouths. No one was very much bothered by the question of who brought home the grub, they just cared that someone did.
"Make sure you leave some for Fagin." Rita said, noticing that they were going through it all very quickly. Fagin didn't snack through the day in the same way the dogs did, so it was important that they kept him properly fed; besides, the kind-hearted man would use his scant funds to buy dog biscuits before he'd feed himself. Making sure to leave a sizeable helping for her master, Rita pulled off a piece for herself and sat beside Dodger. The pizza was cold, but still tasty. What was even better was to see everyone else enjoying it and knowing she'd done well. Tomorrow, the food run would be a burden on someone else's shoulders, and she could spend her afternoon tucked up in bed.
Over their much-welcomed meal, the gang happily chattered about the events of the day. Rita couldn't help but that Dodger failed to mention that he'd visited Oliver, and she found this curious; usually spending time with the cat was something that would be brought up, after all, everyone was always excited to hear how he was going. She decided not to think too much of it, and instead listened to Tito telling them about how he'd almost been swept away in the strong winds.
"That's a pity, maybe next time..." said Francis.
"Watcha mean Frankie?" Tito exclaimed angrily.
"I think you know what I mean, Tito."
"No chance of you ever blowing away though, huh Frankie!"
Francis puffed himself up, furious, "It's Francis, you insignificant and minuscule excuse for a canid!"
"Guys, cut it out, some of us are trying to eat!" Rita snapped. Man, those two could be annoying.
Francis was in even more of a huff when he realised that Einstein had polished off his piece for him while he'd been preoccupied with his argument with Tito. However, the bulldog's petty woes were soon forgotten when Fagin came in through the door, sopping wet, but happy as always to see his canine friends. All five dogs leapt up to greet their master and give him a thorough licking. Fagin was thrilled to see the food that had been brought in, and tucked in as he offered dog biscuits to his canine friends. It seemed a fair exchange. Although things had obviously improved since Sykes' demise, Fagin was kept busy trying to provide for his furry family as much as possible, especially knowing that with winter on the way, life would soon be getting much tougher. He was optimistic though, much more so than he had been when Sykes was looming over him.
As the boys gathered around Fagin to listen to a story- a 'new' one which an ecstatic Einstein had found a few days ago, Rita retired to her bed. As the nights were starting to get chilly, she had added a ragged blanket in there for a bit of extra comfort and warmth. She enjoyed having her own space to get away to where she had a little bit of privacy, and her bed was just right. With one blanket for her to lie on and one draped over her back, it was cosy. The curtain that hung around her head blocked any wind or rain that came through the hole in the roof. She'd slept there ever since she was a pup, and it was her home within a home, the place where she was most comfortable. Her eyelids drooped as she listened to the story, only half paying attention. She found herself thinking more about what Dodger had said, and what he hadn't said. What was it that was going on with Oliver? If nothing was wrong, why hadn't told the rest of the gang? Rita found Dodger extremely frustrating at times; he was never one to give away any more than he wanted to. While Rita understood and saw through Dodger better than most, even she often struggled to read him a lot of the time. She was looking forward to spending time with him the next day; it had been a while since the two of them had spent quality time together alone. In the time they had known each other, Rita had come to love Dodger deeply as a friend or even more- though she had no intention of admitting to the latter, it wouldn't be worth the risk of damaging their friendship. She was at her happiest by his side, and the thought of being with him warmed her more than any blanket ever could. Having Dodger beside her and to herself for an evening would surely keep her spirits running high.
As Fagin finished the chapter, Dodger headed to bed. Tito and Einstein had fallen asleep on Fagin's lap and Francis at his feet. Rita smiled as she looked over to see the others had settled down for the night, and then curled up herself. It all seemed pretty peaceful. Nightmares of Roscoe and DeSoto had haunted them all in the past months, all except for Dodger; if he did suffer from frightening dreams he never showed it. Rita had often been disturbed by the tossing and turning of her companions as they slept, and had her fair share of nightmares herself. Now, everyone was settled, apparently at ease with the world and recovered from what had been a terrible scare, even if it had been something of an exciting adventure. There was no doubt that the coming months would be tough, but the worst of their troubles were behind them, and the future they could take on together. With a glance over to Dodger, who caught her eye with his usual self-satisfied smirk, Rita lay down her head and drifted off into a peaceful sleep.