Winter

By: Joseph Dragonperson

The snowflakes danced and drifted from the sky, motes of white in a red and gray city of bricks. The snow landed on whatever it wanted to; Bike racks, holding lines of convenient transportation, roofs and windows, steamed up from the heating of the building, students running back and forth, trying to not be late to their classes, some lucky flakes finding their way into backpacks and pockets, ruining the math notes that were taken oh so meticulously.

Panting, out of breath, two figures threw the door open. The taller of the two, a thinly built Dragon with skin and hair that matches the weather and large, feathered wings, wore a simple pair of jeans and a button up shirt; horribly planned clothing for the chilly weater. His eyes are the same theme as the rest of him, very light, sky blue, almost steely in tone. He looks like someone who barely knows what exercise is, he's got no muscle at all, though he's got no fat either. It's not even the hot kind of thin, it's more of 'Get this kid a sandwich' thin. The thinness even extends to his tail; dragon tails tend to be thick and muscular, his is only about arm-width, and flicks back and forth every once and a while.

Next to him is an equally tired out auburn-colored fox, ladened with books and bundled up properly for the winter weather. She's shorter by a good head, and is more thickly built, a little bit of chunk, much to her dismay, but a little more muscle too. Her eyes are a reddish-orange, and her hair is a dark brown, it could be called chestnut. Her tail is large, and poofy, and while this makes it seem like an ideal pillow, the dragon has found it to be otherwise many a time; it's just bone, a little flesh, and then masses of thin fur.

"Snail Fox"

"At least I don't run backwards"

"And yet you still trip"

They quietly bicker back and forth like children sliding insults that really mean nothing to each other, sneaking down the hall and into the back of a filled classroom. The students of many different ages, all were currently paying attention to a wisened, greyed Wolf of a teacher, who apparently didn't notice the two sneak in. There's diagrams and charts of solar bodies on the board, which the two teenagers copy down quickly while the teacher rambles on.

"Does nobody really know why Earth has a Magnetic field?" She glares around the room, seemingly disgusted in the lack of scholars in her class. This was recently covered material, and in the reading. A hand shoots up, white and covered in scales.

"Fast rotation and a liquid core?" The dragon replies, apparently on the academic ball within seconds of entering the classroom. There's a silence as his words echo around.

"Correct, Rolo." The teacher replies, writing on the board. There's a quiet grumble through the classroom, apparent discontent at the fact that the student who's always late and never studies does better than them.

* * *

Two hours later the class ends. The students shove their way out the single door, all of them eager to get out of the room as fast as possible, as if their life is being sucked away by the presence of the teacher, or solar bodies, or both. They were silent, brooding, and most of them don't enjoy learning about orbitals and paralax and everything in the class. This comes to a point when a large Wolf, in his mid-thirties, pushed Rolos books out of his hands as he walks out, scoffing as flicked his ragged tail in Rolos face.

"H-here, lemme help you with that!" Rolos fox-companion stammered, bending down and helping him pick up his notebooks. After all the loose notes have been collected, and the hallway mostly emptied of bitter classmates, the two stood up together.

"Thanks, Claire, dearest" Rolo offers the fox a kiss on the muzzle, the two embracing warmly in the silence for a couple seconds. The tenderness breaking as they resume their lives. "When do you have work tonight?"

She paused, thinking silently. "I think it starts at 6? There's a meeting for waitresses beforehand that I've gotta attend" Claire replied, crossing her arms in front of her and clutching her own books to her chest, tail swishing gently behind her. "Can you walk me there?" She asked, smiling at Rolo, trying to charm him with cute looks.

It always worked. "Sure thing, dear, want to come back to my place first?" He asked, wrapping an arm and a feathered wing around her body, pulling the two together for collective warmth as they opened the doors into the winter wonderland. Huddled together for warmth, the two did not rush as they had earlier. Time was not of the essence. It was cold, it was windy, but they had each other, and each others warmth.

The evening was the same as always. Home, a light dinner of leftovers from a heavy lunch, and a brief study session. 'Study' is generally used to describe collective learning, so it doesn't fit as well for these two. A better word would be 'tutoring', as the majority of the time was spent by Rolo, explaining the concepts of class to his confused fox companion.

"Wait, so..." hummed Claire, looking over her diorganized pile of notes from classes and lectures, piled next to the same notes in Rolo's handwriting. The only difference was that Rolos notes were always neater, better organized, and weren't filled with scribbles of lack of understanding.

"Imagine, if you will" Rolo pulled a little stress-ball out of his pocket, squeezing it. He always carried it with him, often squeezing it. Which is odd, Claire always thought, because he never seems stressed. She just assumed it was a grip strength thing. "You know how we're stuck to earth, because of gravity? Well, if Gravity is too strong, it would crush rocks, right?" He gave the stress-ball a squeeze, waiting for some kind of recognition.

"I just don't know..." Claire whined as she pushed her head agains the cool countertop, half-empty bowl of pasta now completely cold next to her. "It's just confusing, I'm tired, I should get ready for work..." Claire whined like a child, not wanting to think of astrology and physics and school subjects.

Rolo sighed, and smiled, pushing back in his chair. "Alright, fine, no class for a couple days, anyway" He replied, much to Claires relief. She smiled into the countertop, keeping her head to the table, until whatever she was daydreaming about was interrupted by a snappy "Go, scoot, get ready then!" from Rolo. With a tiny squeak, the fox jumped off her chair, plants a kiss on the Dragons muzzle, and went to get ready.

* * *

Claire dug her hands into the pockets of her skirt that held her notebook, pen, and ketchup bottles not twenty minutes ago. Her work uniform was as unsuitable for the cold weather as Rolos usual attire, the key difference being that she actually minded being cold. The winter air whipped around her, and she started to get frustrated at that annoying little dragon who was supposed to be there to walk her home. She huddled against the wall, hoping the wind doesn't freeze her fur and tail off, more grumpy than she thought possible.

"Sorry I'm late!" Rolo jogs up, out of breath and lightly clad as always. Whether he just doesn't mind the cold, or is totally hyper-exothermic as his species is supposed to be, who knows, but he loves flaunting that he doesn't mind the frigid cold of the winter. "I, uhh"

"I don't want to hear it, you! Let's just go already!" Claire was fed up with the cold and, despite snapping and looking rather grumpy, pulled instantly into the dragons warm and scaly side, trying to pull of that clever mix of pouting and anger. Rolo couldn't help but laugh quietly at the fox girl, wrapping his feathery wing around her, holding her close, and walking her through the snow, towards her home. They chatted quietly about the weather, their math class the next morning, their plans for the weekend. It was a ritual for the two lovebirds, because planning the future is almost always more exiting than it actually happening.

* * *

The next morning, Claire overslept. Cursing at herself, with a piece of toast halfway in her mouth, she threw her shoes and jacket on, backpack half unzipped and stuffed with disorganized notebooks as she hurried down the sidewalk to the college, hoping she wouldn't be late. As the clock struck the infernal hour of 8, Claire barely made it inside before attendance.

"Aodhan, Rolo?" The teacher called, starting attendance at the top of the list. There was silence. Claire was shocked; Where was he? A second ticked by, then another, and the teacher scribbled a note onto the clipboard. "Anthony, Mark?" Rolo wasn't there. He wasn't there.

Claire panicked. Where was he? He was always there. He always yelled at HER for being late, and he lived a hundred times closer to school than she did. Pausing to raise her hand and chirp a "Here!" as the teacher called her name, Claire dialed his number.

Ring.

Ring.

Ring.

Ring.

"Hey, you've got Rolo, or at least my phone number. Leave a mes-" Shit, shit, where was he? Claire was slightly scared by this, and sent him a worried text. And then another ten minutes later. And another half an hour later. And another another half hour later. Clearly, worried.

The bell dinged, and Claire looked up and around. Preoccupied with worrying over her missing boyfriend, she hadn't taken a single note, and barely heard what was going on in class. And she had work in half an hour, and wouldn't get out until closing. Shit shit shit shit.

She couldn't do anything but go home. Upset and worried, she was almost tempted to call in sick. But she needed the money, badly; even community college was almost too expensive. Without much enthusiasm, Claire got dressed in her work uniform. She looked at herself in the mirror, pausing, before shaking her head. She wiped the tear from her eye, and got her jacket on. Taking a deep breath, she painted a smile on her face. Sad foxes didn't get tips.

The whole walk there, all Claire did was reaffirm herself. He's fine. So what if he didn't show up, it's not like he was mugged or anything. He probably skipped because he didn't think he needed the class. It's not like he did, it was Claire that was hopeless and couldn't miss a class. Even if she had tried, the Eulers Circuits explained in class didn't even start to make sense, Rolo always had to explain it, and, and-

And he wasn't here, where was he?! She sighed, realizing all that confidence building was gone and useless as she pushed open the diner door. Briefly apoligizing to the Shift Manager, she hung up her coat and grabbed her order booklet, and got to work with a smile and a cheery attitute, like a sad clown with happy makeup.

There was one person who creeped her out. It was a tall, thin puma. Or Mountain lion, Claire wasn't ever sure. All he did was order coffee, and oogle at Claire. She was used to creepers, to be honest; She didn't work in a very high class resturaunt, and her skirt came down to the mid-thighs. Still, something about the man gave her chills up her spine.

* * *

Closing time, finally. Claire handed in her pad and ketchup bottles and everything, talking quietly with the other waitresses. She saw the Puma get up, out of the corner of her eye, and finally leave. After waiting another few minutes, just to be safe, Claire finally pulled on her jacket, stepping out into the cold, cold night. She slowly walked home, pulling her fluffy jacket around her, cold in the night air without her external heat source and boyfriend.

WHUMF, Claire was lifted off her feet and sent sprawing on the sidewalk. She wiped the snow off her face, boiling with rage, before being lifted to her feet. "What the fu-" SMOOCH.

"Sorry, darling, I didn't mean to stand you up like that". Roloss boyish face smiles down at her, hugging her close. Suddenly, all the fear and anxiety Claire had been feeling bubbled up into her chest, up into her face, and she started crying. There was a gentle, sweet smell around him, a warmth that pierced the cold night. It was him, she knew it, and she was just... glad.

"W-where were you?!" Claire exclaimed, stammering and blubbering with relief. She didn't even know if she cared anymore, but that doesn't mean she wasn't curious. It was so unlike him.

"Sorry about everything... Well, I was-"

"That yer girlfriend, there?" A gruff voice startled Rolo from behind. He turned around, Claire still huddled under his wing. There was a tall, hooded figure with a cloak around his body, a feline tail poking out the bottom.

"Well, after leaving her alone all day, I don't know anymore, but I'd hope so!" Rolo replied with a cheery smile, squeezing his darling Claire a little tighter. Claire gulped, nervously. This was that creeper from before, she thought to herself. She drew a little closer to Rolo, nervous.

"Well, she owes me some money, unless yer going to pay up for her" The feline replied, voice raspy and desperate sounding. He took a step forward towards the couple, tail flicking under the coat, taking another step.

Rolo looked down at Claire, who simply shook her head no, no, no. He looked back up, shaking his head at the tall feline. "No, I'm sorry, I don't think we need to pay you. Come on, dear" Rolo took a stride forward, half pulling the smaller fox alongside him, keeping his wing around her at all times. Step, step, the snow crunched under his feet, nothing else making a sound.

"I wasn't asking you, buddy" A hand gripped on Rolos shoulder, strong fingers digging into his shoulder, painfully. Rolo turned around, unwrapping his wing from Claire, pushing her backwards with his tail, which snapped through the air like a whip.

"I said, no. Let go." Rolo looked back with an icy determination, undaunted by the taller feline. Something flashed through the air, Rolo managed to pull away and raise his arm, something sharp and cold as ice leaving a long gash down his forearm, ripping his shirt and sending a few scales scattering into the snow.

Rolo growled deep in his chest, kicking his foot up at the felines knee, twisting and grabbing at the knife-hand, but was unfortunately overpowered. He cried in pain, his arm being twisted and shoved back into him. Despite the pain, Rolo stomped his heel straight down on the felines digitgrade foot, and then jamming his knee right into the crown jewels, roaring and swinging a right hook across the felines face, connecting solidly with his jaw, two popping sounds echoing through the night. The cat fell back, twitching in pain, jaw looking dislocated, as Rolo fell forward to his knees, holding his hand, which was broken.

He got up once again, took a few ginger steps forward, then swung his leg into the air and slammed a heel down straight onto the felines face, who screamed in pain, rolling over and clutching his face, twitching.

Rolo fell to his knees again, then backwards onto his back, wings splayed in the snow, panting slowly, in pain. He moaned softly.

"Rolo!" Claire screamed, scrambling through the snow towards the fallen dragon, squatting down and running her hand through his hair, looking at his hand. "Are you okay...?" Something caught her eye. It glinted in the streetlight, and made her blood ran cold.

There was a metal handle sticking out of Rolo's side, and the shirt around it was stained red, and dripping into the snow.

Her hands shook, reaching forward, mumbling softly. "No... no... no..." She started to grip the blade, causing Rolo to yell in pain, grabbing her hand, the flow increasing slightly, the blood pooling in the snow.

"Don't... Pull it out..." His hand had a cell-phone in it, pressed against Claires arm, ringing. She looked at the screen: 911. She started to sob, grabbing the phone and anxiously waiting for help to come. She knelt down next to Rolo, knees sore and aching from the cold, but it didn't matter. She sobbed uncontrollably.

"What... was class today?" He sounded pained to talk, wincing, taking Claires paw and giving it a squeeze with his bad, painful hand. It was the closer of the two. She stared at him, blankly, eyes overflowing with tears, dripping down her face and freezing in the snow.

"Why... Why does it matter..." She sobbed more, almost angry at the dragon for asking something so stupid. But she looked him in the eye, saw his sincerity, saw him grasping for anything to hold onto. She shook her head, tears scattering, a few droplets finding themselves in the street, while other lay on Rolos pantleg. "I... I didn't know -Hic-, it was something about Eulers Circuits... How... I don't know..."

"Heh... It's just like a maze... Trace the whole graph and try not to double-pass... Any part of it" Rolo grinned a little, side oozing painfully, hand aching painfully, everything painful. They talked in hushed tones about math, and graphs, and what class was like that day, and what they'll have for breakfast tomorrow. Rolo shuddered and let his eyes close from pain as the wail of the siren began to crest over the nearest hill, and Claires tears erupted a new, her wails echoing around the street for the paramedics to hear.

* * *

Despite blood loss, hypothermia, and a few fractured bones in his hand, Rolo was perfectly fine within a few days, albeit in the ICU. Within a week, he was released, along with the bouquet of flowers next to his hospital bed, and his girlfriend. She helped him limp home, still heavily medicated and weary, but definitely more healthy than when he went in. Conversation between the two was interesting, to say the least.

"Where's your key?"

"In my bag"

"Which one?"

"The one with pockets"

"They all have pockets!"

"Tsk, but only one has a key in it..."

Eventually they got the door open, and the first thing Rolo did was fall on his couch, hugging a pillow to his chest. Claire lay next to him, careful not to bump the bandages, hugging his chest gently. Despite having been bedrested the whole week, Rolo fell into a light slumber within seconds, hugging Claire close.

Within hours, sadly, the simple, tired joy of life had worn off, and the normal tiredness and weariness settled in. Rolo was aching, but was still fully functional, and seemed to annoy him that Claire wanted to do nothing more than wait on him hand and foot, treating him like he was in a full-body cast.

"I don't need you waiting on me like this, Claire!" Rolo limped out of his room, sighing upsetly at Claire, who had already missed a day of work and class. She was cooking, pasta, which Rolo firmly was of the opinion meant 'I don't know what else to cook right now'

"Rolo! You just got out of the hospital after being stabbed!" Claire exclaimed, turning around and putting her hands on Rolos shoulders, accentuating the last word. STABBED. She couldn't believe it herself.

"I'm fine, I'm serious! I just need to eat something, lie down, take meds, and wait for my blood to come back" He replied, putting his hands on Claires arms, leaning forward and putting his forehead to hers. "Please, dearest, don't worry, I'm no longer in danger of dying. I just need some sleep, and so do you. I'll eat the pasta, I swear, and go to sleep, and won't wake up until you come over tomorrow, alright?"

Claire sighed. She wanted to say no. She really did. But... He was so insistant, and she didn't have the heart to say no. He was fully grown, why does she get to make the decision for him. She sniffed quietly, tears welling up in her eyes. "I... I was so worried that day... Promise?"

Rolo nodded, gently kissing Claire on the nose. "I promise, dear". It's all he could do, and he pulled her close. His body didn't have the same comforting warmth, it was colder than she was used to. He smelled the same gentle, sweet smell, though, and Claire sniffled quietly into his chest scales, eventually regaining her composure.

Claire stayed around to make sure Rolo ate, despite the initial agreement, and left while he was brushing his teeth. She walked briskly back home, no longer feeling safe on the streets. Her thoughts were disjointed, and she kept completely quiet until she clicked her apartment door closed behind her. Breathing a sigh of relief, Claire looked at her books on the table. She needed to study, and study without Rolo, to boot. She didn't, though, she went and fell into her bed, fully clothed, the events of the past week caught up with her as she pitched into black slumber.

* * *

Claire woke up unusually happy that morning. She sprang out of bed, had a long, hot shower, cooked toast and had it with butter and jam, and drank hot tea. She read the newspaper, did the crossword, and lounged around until around noon, as if nothing was wrong. She had work at 1, and was going to stop by Rolos apartment with coffee and bagels, as a surprise.

Quickly getting into her work uniform, Claire hurried down the street to the bagel shop, buying fresh, soft, and warm bagels, as well as two piping hot cups of coffee. Trotting happily down the sidewalk, she withdraws her student ID card, turning it back and forth in her hand.

As apartments go, the one Rolo lives in isn't very... Secure. With a mildly practiced hand, Claire wiggles her ID card into the crack of the door, eventually being rewarded with a gentle click, and access into the warmer building. Stairs creak under her as she steps up the stairs, coming to Rolos door. The inside doors were much more secure, she'd much rather break into the inner sanctum and be warm than wait outside for him to fumble for his button or whatever to let her in.

KNOCK KNOCK. Silence. Claire waits a minute, letting the drugged up dragon get out of bed. No noise. No shuffling, no thud, no cries for help.

KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK. Still nothing. Quiet as... Well, no, it's not quiet at all, with Claires repeated banging on the door.

"Hey, you've got Rolo, or a-" Claire cursed to herself. Why did she leave him alone? Where is he? Is he alright? Finding herself furious and worried for the second time in as many weeks, Claire leaves the bags and coffee on the ground, sitting next to them.

She mumbles quietly to herself. He's gone. He's not here. He's in danger? This wasn't like before, he wasn't in the condition to go out and about and have fun or whatever he was doing. He's sick! He almost died! Where was he? What if someone had taken him?

No, no no no no. Claire shook her head, freeing the few tears from her eyes. She was overreacting. Maybe he went to get something he needed. Or went for a walk, because he felt better. She didn't need to panic. He was fine. He was fine the last time, he was fine now.

Claire checked her watch. Half an hour until work. Sighing, she takes out one of the bagels, biting down on it. She wasn't going to skip breakfast because some no good little dragon thing wanted to make her worried.

* * *

Unlike the fateful night a week ago, work was totally uneventful for Claire. Having been forced to sing (For extra money, however) 'Happy Birthday' for what looked to be a 4 or 5 year old cub, Claire really wanted to just be home in a warm blanket, with cocoa and popcorn and a good movie.

And with Rolo, too! That bastard, he hadn't called or anything. Ooooh, she wanted to give him a beating like he'd only ever heard rumors of! The nerve of him... All worry gone, Claire only felt annoyed that he was so absent! He'd done this a few times before, but never for this long, and never when unwell like he was!

Claire attempted to dial him again, using her other hand to try and keep the thickly falling snowflakes from getting into vital... things, in her phone, whatever they were. She wasn't a tech person.

"Hey, you've got Ro-" Nothing, it's still off. Claire sighed, looking up at the sky. It was gray, almost black, with all those little white specks falling. They were like ghosts, only appearing when the street-lamps cast their light on them, and then disappearing into the monochrome sky.

"Hey, little lady" A voice jarred Claire out of her oddly poetic trance. Looking back towards reality, there was a tall Puma, smartly dressed, standing in her way on the sidewalk. Her eyes widened, her blood ran cold. "Missing your friend? You should come with me. Promise, won't hurt you or anything"

It was the puma from work, the day of the mugging.

Claire ran. Her boots threw snow upwards as she made a mad, lunatic dash back to the diner. She wasn't fast enough. She screamed as a heavy hand was clamped around her mouth.

"Shhh, stop that, I'm not here to hurt you" said the Puma, much to the contradictory evidence. He wrapped his arm around her waist, taking her arm with the hand that was over her mouth. Within an instant, the scene transformed from what looked like a kidnapping, to a gentlemen leading a lady down the street.

Claire lost track of the time. They weren't walking down her street, or Rolos, or towards the college, or to work, or anywhere. She had no idea where they were, and she no longer knew how long they had been going. She was all too terrified to look at her watch, in case the much larger and stronger fur decided she was trying to escape.

Eventually, they came to an apartment complex. Large, as big as her own and Rolos put together, and then some. It was fancy, upscale, the kind of apartment that is used as a love nest, or for the rich to hide from their spouses. She was led inside. The puma nodded at the guard at the front desk, who said something into his radio. Claire couldn't hear what it was. She wished he had, she wished she had any idea what was going on. But she didn't.

An elevator dinged, a young couple exiting it with fits of giggles and childish love. The kind Claire and Rolo had. It made her heart ache. She suddenly became too afraid. Afraid of her life, afraid for Rolo. She missed that love. She missed her love.

Before she had even reached that stage of worry and fear, however, Claire was led into the now open elevator. The doors sealed shut behind her, barring any escape. The fear turned to dreaded resignment. The puma pressed his thumb onto a small, silvery panel, labeled 'Security Access'. The elevator moved, skyrocketing upward. Claire lost her legs and balance, and would have fallen if she wasn't still securely held by the larger cat.

The doors opened to a completely different setting. It was a kitchen. It was large, too. There was a big round table with a few plates and plastic cups sitting out, with colored chairs of different heights. The wallpaper was custard yellow, with badly drawn crayon pictures over it, all signed by different names, albeit half were illegible. There was a smell of freshly baked cookies.

"We're here, mum" called the Puma. Claires brain raced. Mum? Where were they? Why was she being harshly escorted into a friendly womans apartment, who seems to have oodles of kids, and bakes cookies?

"Oh, good, thank you Nigel. You can let her go" A middle-aged Labrador came around the corner, oven mitts on her hands and carrying a tray of freshly baked cookies. She was big, having a good two heads and shoulders above Claire, which she assumed were taken from other victims. She had on a simple yellow dress, matching her golden-brown fur, and had a large, white apron on.

The puma released Claire with a nod, crossing his arms and standing directly in front of the doorway. Claire held herself tightly, grabbing at her elbow and hugging herself. She was in some mob bosses... mothers house. The cookies were poisoned, and the mitts were... she didn't know, guns. She caught her odd train of thought, stopping it. Stay calm.

"Come, sit down, would you like something to eat? Drink? It's not just you, dear, you've had a hard day" The hound stated, turning around and carrying the tray to the kitchen table. She takes a plate, scraping the cookies off of the tray onto it. They were gooey, leaving behind smears of chocolate chips on the bottom of the tray. Claire almost drooled, but stayed stationary. "Oh, come on dear, please, sit. I won't hurt you, I promise, we've got a lot to talk about"

The temptation was too great. Claire slowly crept forward, every inch of her body tense, screaming 'Look out she's going to kill you'. But she seemed so nice, and the cookies looked delicious. Taking a seat in a frosty blue chair, Claire folded her hands in her lap. She didn't want to fidget in front of this woman. A plate, complete with one big, moist cookie, was placed in front of her.

"Milk?" The lab asked, smiling gently.

"Look here, ma'am." Claire started, indignantly. She didn't want to have been abducted off the streets with threats of her beloved, just to be fed cookies.

"Please, call me Dora. Or mum, if you want" The lab smiled again, pouring a tall plastic cup of milk for Claire. "How about this. I'll talk to you about why you're here if you take a bite, alright?"

Claire looked down at the golden brown, chocolate-speckled cookie. She resigned. If they wanted her dead, they'd have shot her instead of feeding her a poisoned cookie. She gingerly picked up the cookie, blowing on it. As if tasting a scalding hot piece of iron covered in snakes, she slowly took a bite.

It tasted like heaven. It was the best cookie she had ever tasted. It melted in her mouth, the chocolate chips and dough oozing and melting together into a symphony of taste. Claires mouth watered, she couldn't help it. She took another bite. And another.

The lab smiled. "Good girl. Now, you're here because I'm worried about a mutual aquaintance of ours" Claire, in the middle of a gulp of milk to wash away the chocolate and dough that stuck to her mouth, froze in place. She spluttered and coughed, and she was thankful that she didn't spit it all over her own shirt.

"What have you done with him?!" She bolted up, knocking over the cup of milk, spilling it across the table. She had almost forgotten the only reason she hadn't screamed for help, the only reason she came here. Rolo. "Where is he?!" she screamed, losing all prior fear of death. She wanted her Rolo back.

"Dear, dear, settle down" Dora picked up the spilled cup, setting it upright and grabbing a towel from the counter, wiping up the spilled milk. "If you're that eager to see him, then come with me, but we still need to talk, alright?" Placing the towel on the counter, she straightened out her apron. "This way, dear?"

Claire followed along behind 'Dora', who opened a door and flicked on a light. It was a long hallway, three or four doors on each side, with large viewing windows next to them. It was the first window that caught Claires eye.

It was a nursery. There was a snowy sky painted on the ceiling, with snow-covered trees for wallpaper, and a soft-looking brown carpet. There were toys scattered around, a large toy-box, and a padded table with what looked to be diapers stashed safely underneath it. There was a crib, with the side down, and a snowy white figure in it. He was wearing a sky blue shirt, with a thick and colorful, yet slightly yellow stained, diaper taped around his waist. He was clutching a large teddy-bear, fast asleep. And he had a large bandage around his abdoman, doubly thick on his side.

"Rolo..." Claire gasped. She didn't understand. What was going on here? She pressed her hands to the glass, pressed her nose against the window until she left smears. A large hand gently lay itself on her shoulder.

"Dear, let him sleep, he's perfectly safe in here, I promise" Dora spoke quietly, with a kind of motherly reassurance. "Come, lets head back to the kitchen, I'll answer whatever you'd like, I promise". Her hand gripped a little tighter on Claires shoulder.

Claires heart swelled. She didn't care anymore. He was safe. He wasn't kidnapped or hurt or anything. And he looked... Happy. At rest, at peace. Tender, and safe. Claire nodded her head quietly, looking away from the window. "Alright..." She spoke through a quiet sob. Dora wrapped her arm around Claires shoulders. It wasn't like the Puma. She wasn't guiding her. She was comforting her.

Back in the kitchen, Claire sat in the same chair, staring at her empty plate. She was confused, and weary now. "Why... Why is he like that? Why is he here? Why did he come here when he was hurt and sick, he should've stayed in bed!" Claire asked, mind overflowing now with things to ask, to say. "Where is this place, even?"

Dora suppressed a quiet chuckle, sitting in the chair next to Claire. It was a shorter chair, smaller, and brought the massive lab closer to Claires own height. "Because he wants it, dear. I can't speak for him, but he seems to miss the comfort of being young, of people being forgiving, of when everything was soft and nice and everything is friendly" Dora explains, folding her hands together on the table.

"I don't know what to call it." Dora continued, looking at her own folded hands. Claire couldn't be sure of what the larger fur was feeling. Guilt? Sadness? Worry? And why would she feel any of those? "I don't make money, it's not a job. A hobby makes me sound like some twisted collector. It just makes my heart ache to see people with such simple needs, feeling alone and lost. He's not alone, you know, that's why there are more rooms. He's just one of the little ones I take care of"

"But... But, I don't understand... Why was he alone? I've always been with him, I never knew..." Claire looked at Doras hands, feeling slightly betrayed. "Why wouldn't he tell me..."

"Dear, think back to how you met him" Dora replied, quietly, solomly. Claires eyes bolted up, looking at the motherly figures face. Why did she know? How did she know?

Two years ago, Claire was a pizza delivery girl. She would deliver on foot, she had no car, she took the local deliveries, the ones within a few blocks. Standard night, large cheese Pizza, ordered to an apartment complex.

The door to the complex was unlocked. Rather, it was locked, but open slightly. Someone must've not closed it properly. She crept up the stairs, to the room number she had been given. Policy says 'Wait outside, ring bell, if they don't come, then leave, you get free pizza'. But it was cold, winter, and she wanted to wait inside, where it's warm, at least.

She knocked on the door, twice. It clicked open, only half shut. This time, she followed policy. She waited outside the door, before knocking again. "Helloooo~?" She called inside, wondering if anyone was there. There was a moan, pained and broken. There was one light on, in the bathroom.

There was a snow white dragon, the same age as her, laying in a bathtub. Blood was oozing from his wrists, and his eyes were unfocused. Claire dropped the pizza, screaming.

She stayed with the dragon until the paramedics came. They said it was a classic case of attempted suicide, and that he was lucky she came along when she did. She stayed with him at the hospital, and got fired from her job for not showing up.

"He had just called his parents" Dora spoke, jarring Claire from the memory. "He had told them. They freaked out. Yelled at him. Called him things I won't repeat" The words hung in the air, Claire let them sink in.

"He never told me why... When he woke up... All he said was that he needed..." Claire couldn't help but giggle, despite the serious atmosphere "That he needed to stop letting it get to him, because life was a bitch, and he needed to be more pimp."

Dora couldn't help but chuckle. "That sounds like my little Rolo". Claire nodded with a smile. Whatever fear or intimidation that she felt before was gone. She felt almost kinship with the larger, motherly hound. "You know, I often would ask him to tell you"

"You... really?" Claire looked up, touched by the sentiment. "If he's so afraid... I don't know, I won't force him..." She's hurt, however.

"Momma... My side hurts..." Both of the turn around, staring at the teenage dragon standing in the doorway, clutching a large teddy bear. His eyes were half closed, tired, and he was rubbing them with his arm. His eyes opened properly. He blinked. His eyes widened.

The teddy bear hit the ground as Rolo bolted down the hallway, a door slamming. Both of the furs in the kitchen stand up quickly, Claire was petrified, frozen in place. Dora, ever in control, ran after Rolo mumbling "No, no, no"

Claire stood still, paralyzed. She slowly walked forward, picking up the fallen teddy bear. It's large, fluffy, brown fur was matted down around the middle, where it had been hugged many nights, she assumed. She pulled it close, hugging it as Rolo hugged it so often. She slumped back into her chair, burying her face into the soft fur of the bear, crying freely as screams and wails echoed down the hall, like a child having teeth drilled. The screaming slowly grew quiet, Claires face still buried in teddy, hiding from the screams, the noise.