As Rita began to wake, the first thing that hit her was the familiar smell. All those weeks ago the scent of rotting wood and wet dog had been almost repugnant, but somehow it had become comforting. She opened her eyes slightly. She was home. Though her eyes struggled to focus, she saw Fagin, who was holding her close, and then Dodger, tucked up beside her on their master's lap, his paw draped over her. The warmth of the blanket wrapped around her tired body, and her friends close to her was a wonderful feeling, so different to the bitter cold she had become used to sleeping alone on the streets.
Dodger's face lit up as he saw her finally stir. All the resentment he'd felt for Rita's leaving was gone, there was only relief that she'd pulled through. After all, she had come home to them. A confrontation could wait.
Fagin chuckled, "Good to have you back with us, girl, I was wondering where you'd got to."
Rita licked his fingers and blinked, trying to take in her surroundings. She became aware of Einstein gazing intently at her, his head resting on the arm of the chair. The fixed stares on her made Rita feel slightly self-conscious, but she managed a weak smile. She couldn't believe it; it was all over and she was safe.
"Hiya, gorgeous," Dodger winked, "It's been a while."
It was a sign of just how tired Rita was that she didn't make the effort to roll her eyes at him. "So-sorry. I'm sorry." Rita's voice was faint as she struggled to find the strength to speak. Dodger didn't seem to be holding a grudge over her leaving, but she still felt terrible for just walking out with no explanation. Her eyes were bleary still, but Rita could see that Dodger had changed. He'd lost the puppy fat that had hung around him, most likely one of the effects of the harsh winter. That devil-may-care expression on his face, though, was just as Rita had remembered.
"Don't worry about it, you're home now." Dodger spoke softly, unnerved by how weak she sounded. It was still a step up at least from when they'd found her lying unconscious, barely breathing and exposed to the wind. Einstein had spotted her tired form as they pulled up home on the tricycle - all three of them had been disbelieving as they recognised the little figure, and Fagin had quickly bundled her up and brought her inside. Dodger had been scared- more scared than he'd ever been in his short life, realising that he was likely to see a friend, the friend who had meant so very much to him, die before his eyes. Just hours before, the struggles of city life had been a game to him… how quickly his world could crash down.
Rita closed her eyes, exhausted. Within seconds she'd drifted to sleep, relaxed in the security of Fagin's embrace.
When she woke, Rita was lying in her old familiar bed, blankets wrapped around her. It was her place, yet she'd been so certain that she'd never be back there. That she was even alive felt like enough of a miracle, to be back in the place where she truly felt happy was an indescribable relief. She looked around, realising that Fagin and Einstein had already left for the day.
"Morning, Rit." The smug voice came from just behind the drapes of Rita's bed.
"I was asleep that long?" Rita replied weakly. It was good to hear Dodger's voice; she'd missed him terribly. She still half expected him to turn him away after the way she'd treated him, but he'd been nothing but friendly- much more than she felt she deserved.
Dodger came around to the front of Rita's bed and lay down, dropping a dog biscuit and nudging it toward her. "You should eat something, you're not lookin' so good."
Rita gratefully took the biscuit. "Thanks Dodge, I've not eaten in days." She looked down at her forepaws, embarrassed that she'd let herself get into such a mess. "I guess it all just got too much for me. I must seem pathetic to you," she said bitterly.
"Nah- that was a long time to be out there on your own. You must'a' been doin' something right." He winked. "We saved you some more biscuits, take as much as you want."
Rita slowly got to her feet, wobbling. The blankets that surrounded her made it difficult to get up, and the cold she felt as they fell away was unpleasant. She could feel Dodger's eyes on her as she walked over to the box of dog treats, but tried to ignore it.
In the weeks since Dodger had seen her, Rita had grown tall and leggy. There was not much to her, just skin and bone and fur, but she'd definitely matured. He noticed a wound that was in the process of healing at the base of her neck and wondered how she'd injured herself- perhaps it was a bite. Her hip bones and ribs were prominent, and her once soft, sleek coat dulled and dirty. She was still unsteady on her feet, her movements stiff and an obvious limp in her step. It was painful to watch.
"Why'd ya leave?" Dodger asked, finally reaching the point where he couldn't contain the question. He couldn't fathom what she'd thought there was to gain by going it alone, out in the cold, not when she had a home and a family. Rita looked completely wrecked, and she'd done it to herself by choice. "I thought you were one of us. We took you in when no one else would! I just don't get it, Rita."
Again, Rita looked at her feet uncomfortably, avoiding eye contact with Dodger. It was time to face up to what she'd done, no matter how ashamed she felt. She had to trust that he'd at least try to understand. "I thought it would make things better." She shrugged nervously, "Maybe- maybe I could find my sister if I just stayed out looking; maybe you, and Fagin, and Einstein, would be better off if you didn't have the extra mouth to feed." Rita forced herself to look at Dodger, hoping he'd realise that she'd never meant to hurt anyone, that she was sorry. He was frowning, apparently angry, but she felt she had to keep going, even as her stomach was tying itself in knots. "The guilt was really getting to me. I felt bad for being happy and having a family when I deprived Willow of that. I know I shoulda said something, but I didn't want to be talked out of it. I know I really screwed up, I just convinced myself that it wouldn't matter to you that much if I left." She whined, exhausted and desperate for Dodger's forgiveness- she couldn't face solitude again, "I'm so sorry for doing this to you, after you took me in and made me part of your family. I'm sorry, Dodge, I really am. I never wanted to hurt you, or Einy, or Fagin." Tears welled up in Rita's eyes, even as she tried to stop herself from crying. "You can't be madder at me than I am. I know how stupid I was, and I hate myself for it. I'm just really, really sorry."
Dodger listened, and felt that Rita's apology was genuine. He had been deeply wounded by her walking out on him, and healing from that had been one of the hardest things he'd ever had to do. However hard it might be, he didn't want to risk driving her away again. He had to refrain from picking a fight over it, at least while what she really needed was the help of a friend. Rita looked pathetic, a scrap of a dog, lucky even to be alive. He couldn't turn his back on her, not after the long night of desperately willing her to keep clinging on. Dodger knew he'd forgive her, it might just take a little while. "You gonna stay?" was all he could say. He spoke with a slight growl.
"If you still want me to, I'm home for good," Rita said hopefully, and she brushed away her tears with a foreleg. She paused, remembering the purse she'd stolen on her way back home, "Did Fagin pick up that purse I had with me? I know it doesn't make up for me walkin' out on you guys like that…"
"Guess you're stickin' around then," Dodger's voice brightened up, just a little. It was going to be a challenge to get Rita back on her feet, but he was determined to be behind her all the way. What was more, she needed to know that. "We got the purse- you don't have to buy your way back in, ya know. You're family. I really missed you, Rita."
"I've missed you too, Dodge. It's been real lonely," Rita said, and she sat down beside him, hugely relieved that he still wanted her around. She began chewing on a biscuit, the first food she'd tasted in days. "I found my dad actually," she said between bites, "and I travelled with him for a while. Must have been a few weeks or something. But we got separated, and I've been on my own since."
"Woah, really? How'd ya know it was your dad? You never even knew who your dad was!"
"I saw him hanging around outside my old place- I stayed near there a lot to begin with- and he round there a lot too, so I talked to him. He said that he had a girlfriend who lived in the building; a saluki. I guess he looked sort of like me as well. And then we both kinda worked it out at the same time. It was pretty neat, he kept me company, and showed me round some parts of the city I'd never seen before. So, what about you? You all been doing okay?"
"Yeah, we've been good. I guess it's been harder now it's gotten so cold, but we can handle it, easy-peasy," Dodger realised that the near-spent Rita might take this as an insult, knowing that she was both rather proud and in a state of physical collapse having been subjected to the very same thing, and added, "It helps to not be on your own, and it least we've got a home to go back to that's sorta warm and dry."
"Warmer and drier than out there anyway." Rita said, "I can handle myself fine on my own; I know how to fight now. And I was doin' all right findin' food, but then it got so cold. It's not easy finding enough food to keep going when you have to focus on not freezing to death. You wouldn't believe how long it took me to walk home; it was all I could do to find enough food to stay alive, I barely had the energy to move. I was so, so scared." She shook her head, reliving the feeling of gut-wrenching terror that came with struggling to move… struggling even to breathe. "When I wasn't looking for something to eat, I was sleeping- and then I picked one fight too many and messed up my leg. If Willow was left on the streets, I'm sure she's dead now. I guess that's partly why I came back; it became pretty pointless me being out there on my own. I couldn't help anyone out there, but I figured, maybe I'd be more use to you guys now I've got my head sorted out."
"Sure beats dyin' out there on your own. Ya know, Einy's gonna want to hear a load of stories about where you've been when he gets back, we can catch up properly tonight. I've got loads to tell you about too." Dodger was pleased that Rita was coping with the loss of her sister far better than she had been when he saw her last; even in her undernourished state, she appeared to be back on track emotionally. He also got the impression that the time on her own had toughened Rita up- she wouldn't have survived so long if it hadn't. "Rit, I need to get to work soon. You don't mind, do you?" he asked, feeling guilty. Rita had been alone for too long as it was; it seemed unfair to leave her by herself, especially in such a poor state. He reminded himself that if they didn't stay on top of things it wouldn't do Rita any good either. She needed to be taken care of, and that meant bringing in food and supplies.
"Hey, I'm fine. I'll probably sleep most of the day anyhow. I feel like I could sleep for a whole month." The thought of being alone again was not a pleasant one, but Rita knew he'd be back soon enough. "Thanks for staying back with me by the way, it means a lot."
"No problem, Rita, I've got your back. And I'm always goin' to. You're my best friend, remember?" Dodger grinned, "So… you gonna show me those new fightin' moves, huh?" He crouched into a play bow.
"Not brave enough to wait 'til I've got my strength back, hey Dodgie?" Rita circled him slowly; tired and unsteady on her feet as she was, she couldn't resist his invitation to play, it had been too long. "And here was me thinking you were the tough guy?" She stumbled and she wobbled, and the movement made her feel queasy, but just to have a chance to enjoy her old friend again made it worth the effort.
They clashed playfully, and Rita noted how uncharacteristically gentle Dodger was being, obviously being careful not to hurt her in her weakened state. Taking advantage of his apprehension, Rita pinned him to the floor and mouthed his neck, growling. Dodger snarled jokingly and retaliated harder. He laughed as he pulled her down, and then slowed, snuggling close to her and nudging his head gently against hers. He may not have been one for outwardly showing affection, but Dodger needed Rita to know how much he cared for her, having spent the past weeks thinking the chance would never come. She snuggled back, the sheer relief and elation at having her best friend by her side showing on her face.
"You going to be okay?" Dodger got to his feet to leave, feeling embarrassed for a moment by the display of affection. This faded quickly as he realised how much it meant to Rita that he let his guard down with her.
"I'm gonna be fine. Tell Einy that I'm home for good, and when I'm back on my feet I'm gonna show you guys what I'm really made of." Rita grinned, filled with confidence and love for her friends. She knew that the hardships she'd faced would fade to distant memories; she was on her way to something better. It was time to put the past behind her, and become the dog she was truly meant to be.