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Woman's Best Friend

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Clarke stepped out the front door of her new place, wanting to bask in the morning sun for a little while before she got down to work... and nearly tripped over the dog that had planted itself in the middle of the front porch. Hot coffee sloshed over her fingers and she winced, hastily setting the mug down on the wide arm of the Adirondack chair the previous owner had left behind. She was grateful to them, whoever they were, because it was a perfect place to sit and relax at the end (or beginning) of a long day.

It had seemed strange to her that she'd gone through the whole process of buying a house without ever meeting the person selling it, dealing only with realtors and agents and lawyers, but in the end the deal had been done, the (mountain of) paperwork signed, and the keys turned over.

"Are you lost, buddy?" she asked the dog, kneeling down to ruffle its ears as she checked for a collar and tag. Its tongue lolled out in a grin, and it didn't seem to mind as she rummaged through its long, golden fur, but came up empty.

Probably a neighbor, she thought. I'm sure they'll come looking for it soon.

If no one came by in the next hour or so, she would call... who did you call when you found a lost dog? The police? Animal Control? But the idea of someone catching the dog and stuffing it into a cage, where who knew what would happen to it if no one came to claim it rubbed her the wrong way. If no one came looking for the dog, she decided, she would keep it and put up posters, maybe call around to local shelters and rescues to see if anyone had contacted them about a lost dog. Maybe take it to a vet to see if it had a microchip? That was a thing, wasn't it?

She hoped it wouldn't come to that. It was a beautiful dog, clearly well taken care of, and someone was sure to be missing it.

Clarke sat down in the chair and picked up her coffee again, letting her eyes go a little out-of-focus as she looked out at the trees in the yard across the street. They were just starting to turn color, and she itched to get out her sketchpad and some colored pencils... or maybe an easel and canvas and paints... to try to capture it.

Later, she promised herself, and hoped she would be able to keep it.

She was drawn out of her reverie by a shuffling sound, and when she looked down, she found the dog had army-crawled its way over to her, and when she caught it in the act, she would swear it looked just a little sheepish.

"It's okay," she said. "I don't mind if you join me."

The dog's head popped up and out came its tongue again, and she leaned down to stroke its head. It made a soft sound and sat up – giving her a glimpse of its belly that told Clarke that it was in fact a 'he' –before plunking its big golden head in her lap with a sigh of contentment.

"You're going to be so mad at me when I have to get up, aren't you, Buddy?" she asked. Because he didn't have a tag, and Buddy was as good a name as any for a dog that would only be hers for a few hours or maybe days.

Buddy's eyebrows wiggled, one up and one down, then the opposite, as if he was really listening to her, and Clarke couldn't help laughing. "Yeah," she said. "Someone's definitely missing you." How could they not?

But after almost an hour, no one had turned up, and Clarke couldn't put off starting work any longer. She thought about bringing her laptop out to the porch, but she didn't think there was an outlet and running an extension cord would be a pain... never mind the fact that she didn't own an extension cord. (She made a mental note to add it to the list of things she needed to buy now that she was a homeowner. It was amazing how many things you didn't realize you needed until you were truly on your own for the first time and there was no one to take care of whatever little problems popped up for you.)

"I have to go inside," she told the dog. "You can come with me if you want to."

Again, the dog gave her a serious look like he was thinking the offer over. As soon as she opened the door, he popped up and slid past her, walking in as if he owned the place.

"Make yourself at home," Clarke joked.

Buddy did just that.

Lexa rolled her neck, trying to the ease the tension that knotted it all the way up into her scalp. She could feel the beginnings of a headache and hoped she could stave it off with a long run and a hot shower. The last thing she needed was to have to argue the most important case to come across her desk all year with a migraine. She glanced at one of the streetlights and was glad to see that the halo around it was of the ordinary variety, and not the sparkling aura that was a harbinger of things to come.

She opened the door and nearly tripped over the dog she'd never meant to acquire... but she was a sucker for a pair of big blue eyes, especially when they belonged to her little brother. He'd fallen hook, line, and sinker for the runt of the litter sob story they'd been told about the one pup left in a big playpen set up outside the pet store by a local rescue... and she'd fallen for his pleading eyes and trembling lip.

"Get out of the way, you goon!" she laughed, and watched as the dog danced backward, doing a little twirl of excitement as she slipped off her shoes and reached for her sneakers, because as far as he was concerned, sneakers could only mean one thing.

"Yes, we're going out," she said, rolling her eyes. "But I have to change first. Can you give me five minutes?"

The dog's eyes were brown, not blue, but he could give Aden a run for his money in the puppy-dog eye department.

Hence why they're called puppy-dog eyes, she told herself, and had to laugh a little. It had been a long day. A long week, really – just one more added to the string of them she'd been racking up since... forever, it sometimes felt like.

She went upstairs with the dog hot on her heels. When she told him a gentleman didn't watch a lady undress (unless she invited him to, which was definitely not thing that had been, or ever would be on Lexa's agenda), he turned his back as if he'd really understood her... but she was pretty sure he snuck a few peeks.

"All right," she said when she had changed into workout gear. "Let's go."

He charged down the stairs ahead of her, doing his little two-step again as she made her way down at a more sedate pace. She grabbed his leash and reached down to hook it to his collar, only to discover that he'd somehow managed to slip out of it... again.

"You need to stop doing that," she grumbled, then crossed her arms and tapped her foot. "Well?" she asked. "Are you going to get it or not? You're not going anywhere without it."

At least he had the good grace to look ashamed of himself as he slunk off to retrieve his collar from wherever he'd left it. She held out her hand and he deposited it into her palm. She clipped it back around his neck and hooked the leash to it, then stepped out into the crisp autumn air. She breathed in deep and let it out slowly, then set off at an easy jog to warm up before settling into a pace that they could both sustain for miles.

When they got home she dropped food into his bowl and headed up to her room to shower, letting the water wash away the day. She wrapped herself in her coziest pajamas and heated up some leftovers from dinner at Anya's, settling on the couch to eat in front of the TV with a guilty glance at her neglected kitchen table.

If it wasn't just me... But the thought was nudged aside by a cold, wet nose poking up under her elbow. "Oh, come on then," Lexa said, and the dog hopped up beside her on the couch, nestling his head in her lap, the better to catch any dropped crumbs.

"You're back!" Clarke said. "I was worried about you!" Buddy had stayed at her feet most of the morning, only getting up a few times to sniff around the house before returning. They'd had lunch on the porch, where Clarke had let herself be persuaded to part with a few bites of her sandwich when he'd whined and licked his chops like he hadn't been fed in forever, and he'd followed her back inside afterward. She'd been just about ready to finish for the day when he'd gone to the back door and started whining, so she'd let him out, figuring he needed to pee. After sending one last email, she'd gone out to check on him... only to find he'd disappeared without a trace.

Or with one trace, which she'd been forced to pick up with a plastic bag-wrapped hand because she didn't have a shovel. (Another thing for the ever-growing list...) She hoped he'd remembered which way home was and gone there, but she'd had a hard time sleeping as thoughts of all of the terrible things that could happen to a dog wandering around on its own chased their tails in her head.

But now it was morning and he was back, and Clarke nearly spilled her coffee again in her haste to get down on his level and wrap him in a big hug. "Where did you disappear to?" she asked, giving him a stern look. "You can't just go galivanting on your own! It's a dangerous world out there!" She'd thought maybe he'd caught he scent of a likely lady-friend and gone off to sow his wild oats, but closer inspection told her had no oats left to sow.

Buddy just grinned at her, the scolding leaving him unfazed, and Clarke gave in and smiled back, planting a kiss on the top of his big golden head. "Well I'm glad you're back," she said, sitting on the porch next to him and retrieving her coffee, holding it with one hand while she slung the other around his back. "I was kind of lonely without you."

When she was done with her coffee, she went inside to get started working for the day. She pushed the door open wide, expecting Buddy to come in behind her, but when she didn't hear the click of his nails on the floor she looked back and found him sitting at the door as if waiting for an invitation.

"Come on, then," she said, going back to open the door. Buddy slipped through under her arm and headed straight for her office, settling down next to her desk. When she sat down, he scooted a little closer, putting his head down on her feet, heaved a sigh, and promptly went to sleep.

It didn't make the day shorter, but somehow it made it easier, more pleasant, to have a companion. He didn't require much attention, although he did occasionally sit up and put his head in her lap until she filled his quota of pats and scratches. In a way, it was a nice reminder to take a break so she didn't get too stressed out. Maybe there really was something to the whole 'having a pet lowers your blood pressure' thing. Maybe...

But he belonged to someone else... probably. Someone who didn't take very good care of him... but from this bright eyes and shiny coat, that wasn't exactly true, was it? But someone who wasn't very good at keeping an eye on him, which could lead to him getting hurt, which—

Clarke leaned down to stroke one silky ear. "I won't let anything happen to you," she promised.

Buddy opened one eye, lifted his head just long and far enough to give her an open-mouthed grin, then closed it again and sank back into sleep.

When they took their lunch break, she let him out into the back yard, and he ran around, sniffing, and then started digging around in one corner. "Hey!" Clarke called. "That's my potential future flower bed you're destroying!" But he didn't stop digging, and she finally went to see what he was trying to get at.

She'd only gotten halfway across the yard when he whirled around, doing a bouncy little dance before charging up to her and dropping a ball at her feet. His nose was covered in dirt, and so was the ball (mixed with slobber, so it was basically a mudpie in spherical form). Clarke picked it up anyway, and threw it as far as she could... which wasn't very far. Buddy shot off like a rocket, scooping the ball from where it landed and came racing back, doing a little circle around her before dropping the ball and planting his butt in a sit.

She picked up the ball and threw it again, and it was only when her phone buzzed in her pocket with a text from a coworker asking if she was coming back from lunch any time soon that she realized she'd lost a good half an hour throwing the ball for the dog and watching him joyfully chase it and bring it back. She got the feeling he could have done another half hour, maybe more, but when he dropped the ball at her feet, she left it there. "Sorry, Bud," she said. "I have to get back to work."

Dogs couldn't pout, but somehow this one managed to do a credible facsimile. "I know," she said. "Come inside and I'll get you some water." She brushed the lingering dirt from his nose and let him inside, and found a bowl to fill with water for him. He lapped it up thirstily (and noisily) before joining her again, sprawling out like a big dog-shaped rug for a snooze.

"I know I can't keep you," she said as she let him out at the end of the day. "But I kind of wish I could..."

Apparently he had other ideas, though, because the minute she turned her back, he was gone.

Lexa dropped her keys on the little table just inside the door, surprised that she wasn't immediately accosted by the dog doing his little happy dance like he was so happy to see her he couldn't contain himself. She was about to call for him when he came barreling through the doggy door that led out to the back yard, skidding on the tile in his haste to get to her.

"There you are," she said, crouching to wrap her arms around him, rubbing her cheek against his fur. "Did you miss me?"

He let out a soft wuff, and Lexa couldn't hold back her smile. "I missed you too," she said. "You know who else I bet misses you? Aden. What do you say we go visit him this weekend?"

He gave another wuff, and Lexa rubbed his ears. "Are you ready for a run?" she asked.

His nails clacked on the tile as he pranced, as if to say, 'I was born ready!'

That night she broke her own rules and let him climb up on the bed, because it seemed too big for just one person and she missed the weight of a companion on the other side. It had been over a year since she and her girlfriend had parted ways, as amicably as one ever could dissolve the future you'd believed in so hard for so long, and most of the time she was okay. Nights were the hardest, though, especially following days she would rather not think about (or obsess over, if she was really being honest). And a dog wasn't a person, but maybe that wasn't always a bad thing. At least he couldn't point out all of her flaws and the ways she'd failed.

He accepted her exactly as she was, warts and all, and there was something to be said for that.

Saturday dawned chilly and damp, but Lexa loaded the dog into the car and drove home – not that she'd ever lived there – anyway. She clipped his leash on as they approached the door, knowing her father wouldn't be thrilled (and his wife, who wasn't Lexa's mother, even less so) that she'd brought the dog along. But Aden would, and that was all that mattered.

She rang the bell, and one of the household staff opened it. "Oh!" she said, pressing a hand to her chest. "We didn't know you were coming."

"Because I didn't tell you," Lexa said. "Sorry..." not sorry, she added silently. She knew better than to tell them ahead of time when she was planning to visit; it prevented disappointment for Aden if something came up and she wasn't able to make it after all, and it prevented disappointment for her if they found some excuse to say no. And sure, there was always a chance she would come at a bad time and they wouldn't be home, but it wasn't such a long drive that she wasn't willing to take a chance.

"FISH!" Aden came pounding down the stairs, a tangle of limbs he was still growing into and hadn't quite figure out how to coordinate yet, and threw himself on the floor, wrestling with the dog and letting out peals of laughter that echoed off the marble of the entryway when Fish – Lexa grimaced at the name – began licking his face.

"And what am I?" Lexa asked. "Chopped liver?"

Aden sat up and grinned. "I hope not! If you were, Fish might eat you!"

"'I'll eat you up, I love you so,'" Lexa growled, holding up her hands like monster claws.

"And Aden said, 'NO!'" Aden finished, getting up and throwing his arms around her, burying his face between her breasts, too young to realize how awkward it was. "I love you too," he said, his voice muffled. "Almost as much as I love Fish." He looked up, his chin digging into her sternum, and grinned.

Lexa sniffed and stuck out her lip, and Aden's face fell. "Nooo!" he said. "I didn't mean it!"

"I know," she said, planting a kiss on his forehead. "I was just playing."

"I don't like that kind of playing," he said. "It feels too real."

"I'm sorry, buddy," she said softly, hugging him again, squeezing until she felt him relax. "I won't do it again. I promise."

He nodded, sniffling a little himself, and Fish wedged himself between them, trying to get at the face of his boy again to make sure there weren't any tears. Aden let go of Lexa and hugged the dog – his dog, except he wasn't allowed to keep him – until all trace of sadness had faded. "Can we go to the yard?" he asked. "I have lots of tennis balls! They're supposed to be for my tennis lessons but I don't even like tennis." He rolled his eyes. "Come on, Fish!"

Lexa followed, sure she would hear about it if there was even the slightest divot in the grass left behind by the antics of Boy and Dog, but she didn't care. They could hassle her all she wanted; at least Aden would get the chance to just be a kid instead of a Mogul-in-Training or whatever her father and his wife (Lexa couldn't – or refused to – think of her as a stepmother, and she was pretty sure the woman would set her straight if she ever tried) wanted him to be.

She watched as Aden threw a tennis ball for Fish over and over again, wondering which of them would tire first. But then the ball landed in one of Aden's mother's prize flowerbeds (which were designed, planted, and tended by a hired gardener, but she still claimed credit), Lexa knew she had to put a stop to their fun, and fast.

"Fish!" she shouted. "Come!"

The dog skidded to a halt, but it was clear he was torn between going after the ball only a few feet away, taunting him, and following the command.

"Fish..." she said, and he lowered his head and slunk toward her, collapsing at her feet with his tongue all the way out.

Aden sat down next to her on the edge of the deck, leaning against her shoulder. "I wish I could see Fish every day," he said, heaving a giant sigh. "I wish I could come live with you and stay forever."

Lexa put her arm around him and hugged him to her side. "I know, buddy."

Aden took the gesture as an invitation to climb into her lap, even though he was getting far too big to do so, his legs dangling almost to the ground as he tried to tuck the rest of himself into the circle of Lexa's embrace. Now she was the one to sigh, her breath ruffling his hair as she pressed her lips to the crown of his head.

It wasn't that she hadn't thought about it. She had. Last summer – not the one that had just passed but the one before – her father and his wife had decided to take a three week long cruise to celebrate their tenth anniversary, sans Aden. They'd originally arranged for his nanny to come stay with him for the duration, but it had fallen through at the last minute, and out of desperation they'd been forced to ask Lexa to step in. The plan had been for her to stay here at the house, which was not the house she'd grown up in, but after only one night of its mausoleum-like echoing quiet, she'd asked Aden if he would like to stay at her house instead. Sure, the yard wasn't as big and he didn't have every streaming service and game system at his fingertips, but he got to wear what he wanted and eat what he wanted (within reason) and just be a kid.

He'd loved every minute of it.

Lexa, to her own surprise, had too. Before then, she'd had a hard time thinking of the little boy has her brother; the twenty-plus year age gap had seemed like an insurmountable chasm between them. But it hadn't taken him long to wiggle and giggle his way into her heart, and soon she couldn't imagine her life without him.

When her father had called her a week into the trip to ask if she could watch him for a few days, maybe a week longer, she hadn't hesitated. She'd just said yes. Which was probably when she'd started thinking about the possibility of making it a more permanent arrangement... and looking at bigger houses. Because the guest room was roughly the size of Aden's closet at home. (Not that he minded. He said it was cozy.)

It was also when they'd acquired Fish. They'd been out on a shopping trip – Aden was obsessed with the process of cooking, and had practically glued himself to Lexa's side every time she so much as set foot in the kitchen – and Aden had been telling her about how he'd been begging and begging his parents for a pet. "Even just a goldfish!" he'd said. "I'm willing to com-per-mise."

Lexa hadn't even thought about it. She'd just said, "I'll get you a fish." She knew it was more than just putting a fish in a bowl, but how hard could a small aquarium be to maintain? The learning curve couldn't be that steep.

But when they got to the pet store, there was a fluffy golden bundle all alone in a pen, and two sets of wide, pleading eyes – one brown, one blue.

"He's all alone, Lexa," Aden had said, so close to tears his lip quivered. "He needs us."

So instead of a tank, a filter, some gravel and a few fish, they'd come out of the pet store with a collar and leash and bowls and food and treats and a crate and a schedule of puppy training classes and never looked back.

Five weeks later, her father had returned and taken Aden home, and Lexa had watched him sucking back tears because boys didn't cry as he said goodbye first to his dog, and then to her... because her father had told them both on no uncertain terms that there was no way Aden was bringing that thing into their house.

"I promise we'll come visit all the time," Lexa had told him, whispering the words into his ear so her father couldn't hear and argue. "And we'll see if you can come visit us, too, okay? We're not going anywhere. I promise."

She'd begun her house hunt in earnest that night, but things kept coming up and life kept getting in the way, and the better part of a year had passed before she knew it. She'd finally found the perfect place only a few miles away, but in a better school district... and then her job had sent her on a long-term assignment out-of-state the day after the closing, and she'd had the handle the sale of her old place remotely. It had been a nightmare, and the only thing that had gotten her through it was Fish and FaceTime calls with Aden as often as his parents would allow.

She'd only just started to get settled into her new place. Aden hadn't even seen it yet. She was waiting until she had his room ready... but then wondered if that might be more cruelty than kindness when the odds of him ever getting to live there were slim. Because in order for Lexa to get custody, she would have to make a case that his parents were unfit, and they weren't, at least by the court's standards. But just because they weren't unfit didn't mean they were good.

Still, she hoped that at the very least Aden would be allowed to visit.

"Hey," she said, nudging his head with her chin until he looked up at her. "What do you say we take Fish for a walk and go get some lunch? And maybe after lunch we can get some ice cream."

Aden's face lit up. "Or," he said, mischief sparkling in his eyes, "we could get ice cream before lunch."

"We'll see," Lexa said, but she knew they would. If Aden ever did come to live with her, she would have to get a lot better about enforcing rules, but as a big sister who was only occasionally allowed to visit, she could spoil him just a little.

She pulled Fish's leash from her pocket and the dog was up on his feet in an instant, prancing around so much in his excitement that it took three tries for her to actually get it clipped on. She held out her hand and Aden slipped his into it... then let go and darted off to retrieve the tennis ball from the flower bed, slipping it back into the tube with the other balls, hiding the evidence. (Except for the fact that it was covered in dirt and dog slobber, while the others remained pristine.)

It wasn't exactly a walkable neighborhood, so they loaded into Lexa's car. Aden and Fish cuddled in the back seat while Lexa drove them downtown, passing her old street on the way. She found parking a few blocks from their favorite ice cream place and Aden took her hand again as they walked down the sidewalk and got in line.

When they had their cones – including a kiddie cone of vanilla for Fish, which he swallowed practically in one gulp – they found seats at one of the little tables.

"Can we go to your house after?" Aden asked. "Please?"

"I don't live there anymore," Lexa said.

Aden's face fell. "Oh." He bit his lip. "Does that mean you won't come to visit anymore?"

"Of course not," Lexa said. "My new house is actually closer to you than my old one."

"Oh," Aden said, the tension draining from him. "Does that mean you'll come to visit more?"

"I'll try," Lexa said.

Aden beamed and munched his cone, offering Fish a lick until Lexa reminded him that chocolate wasn't good for dogs – including the chocolate chips in cookie dough. "Sorry, buddy," Aden told the dog, scratching his ears. "Maybe next time you shouldn't eat yours so fast."

Lexa smiled. "Are you still hungry for lunch?" she asked when he'd finished and used three napkins to wipe the stickiness from his face. (Which was better than him letting the dog do it.)

"I'm always hungry," Aden said. "Can we get French fries? And after lunch can I see your new house? Please? Please please please?"

Lexa made a face at him but relented. "Fine," she said. "But only because you said please."

Aden threw his arms around her, and Lexa could feel he'd missed a spot on his chin as he tucked his face into her neck. He clung to her as they made their way to the burger place Aden had fallen in love with over the summer, where he demolished a kids' meal and ate half of Lexa's fries, too.

"Next time I see you you're going to be as tall as me," she joked.

Aden shook his head. "Nah," he said. "But maybe when I'm nine."

Lexa laughed. "Maybe," she agreed. She paid the check and returned to the car, driving to her new house. She unlocked the door and let Fish off the leash as Aden looked around, wide-eyed even though there wasn't much to see. She had all the basics, but hadn't gotten around to doing much decorating. The only art she'd hung up was a drawing Aden had done for her while he'd been visiting of the two of them with Fish the Puppy, giant smiles on their faces.

She thought Aden's eyes might pop out of his head when he saw it. "You kept that?" he asked, barely a whisper.

"Of course I kept it," Lexa said. "It's my favorite."

"But it's not very good," Aden said. "I'm not very artistic."

Lexa tried and failed to keep from scowling. "That's not true at all," she said. "I went to your school's art show, remember? I saw what your classmates did. I think you're very artistic."

Aden shook his head. "There's no future in it," he said, and those were their father's words coming from his mouth, and Lexa had to swallow back the anger that bubbled up.

She crouched in front of him and put her hands on his upper arms, her touch gentle but firm. "Listen to me," she said. "Life isn't just about making money. Don't you ever let your father and mother tell you otherwise. There are other measures of success than how much is in your bank account. If you like to draw, then you keep drawing. Even if there's 'no future in it', which isn't necessarily true. Even if you just do it for fun... if it's something you love, it's something worth doing, and if anyone tells you you shouldn't, you tell me and I'll tell them where they can stick it. You understand?"

Aden fought back a smile as he nodded. "Yes," he said. "I understand."

"Good. Now do you want to see your room? I can't decide on what color to paint it."

Clarke had stopped worrying so much about where Buddy went when he wasn't there. He never showed up on the weekends, which led her to believe that maybe he really did belong to one of the neighbors – even though she never saw anyone out walking him – and he snuck out while they were away at work, and went home at the end of the day. But just in case, she'd bought him a food and water dish and a bag of kibble... and then gone back and gotten him the biggest, comfiest dog bed she could find, setting it right by her desk so he could lounge there while she worked each day. She'd stopped short of buying him a collar and leash – it had felt like a step too far – but as the days got shorter and colder, she started to think maybe she should. Just in case he didn't have another home.

She didn't mind the idea of having a full-time companion for the long winter nights...

One Monday, though, he wasn't waiting at the door when she opened it to let him in. She wrapped herself in several layers of flannel and fleece and kept her coffee cupped between her palms as she sat on the porch, watching as the sun melted the frost from the grass and waiting for him to appear.

He didn't.

Her heart sank as she forced herself to go inside, and all day she was distracted. She would occasionally reach down to scratch Buddy's head, only to be reminded of his absence, and she felt a pang in her chest every time. She found herself getting up several times an hour to check the porch, and then the back yard, to see if he'd appeared.

When it came time for her to close up shop for the day, she'd barely accomplished anything. She knew she ought to put in at least another hour or two, to really hunker down and focus and make some progress on her projects so she wouldn't be scrambling to make it up the next day, but she closed her laptop anyway... only to move to the couch with her tablet and start scrolling through various rescue websites.

Not that she was really thinking about getting a dog.

Not really.

Only if Buddy didn't come back...

It didn't hurt to look, did it?

Lexa had stayed home from work the day before, fighting a cold that left her drained and dragging. Fish had stayed right by her side all day. She'd even managed to get him to retrieve the box of tissues when she'd forgotten it in the kitchen after just barely summoning the energy to make herself a can of soup.

Today, though, she had to go in. She still felt like death warmed over, but she had a meeting she couldn't miss. So she doped herself up with cold meds and drove to the office, taking a few minutes in the car to psych herself up before striding in like nothing was wrong and her head wasn't swimming.

She made it through the meeting on pure adrenaline, but as soon as she sat down at her desk afterward, the surge of energy that had propelled her faded, and she all but collapsed onto its surface. She forced herself upright and to her boss' office, where she told him she would be leaving for the day. She didn't even wait for an answer, just kept walking.

It took two tries to unlock the door, and when she stumbled through it she sank down on the steps to remove her shoes, expecting to have a face full of dog at any second. But no cold wet nose (not unlike her own today...) appeared, no hot doggy breath and questing tongue.

"Fish?" she called. "Where are you?"

No answer.

She used to the bannister to lever herself up and padded to the back door, opening it to look out into the yard. "Fish?"

Nothing. Not a sound, not a movement.


"Fish?" she called again, her voice croaking. She sucked in a breath and did her best to project. "FISH!"

But he wasn't there. He was gone.

She'd lost her dog.

No, it was worse than that. She'd lost her brother's dog. His very best friend in the whole world.

And she'd lost him.

The ground was icy beneath her feet as she searched the yard, thinking he was hiding somewhere, maybe asleep. Maybe somehow he'd gotten himself stuck?

She caught a glint of metal in the back corner and went to investigate. There, on the ground, was his collar. That damned collar that she knew he could slip out of but that she'd never gotten around to replacing. And just off to the side was a hole that burrowed under a gap in the fence that she'd never noticed, widening it just enough to let an oaf of a Golden Retriever through.

Lexa's eyes filled with tears and she sank down on the ground, clutching the collar and crying until the tissues shoved in her pocket ran out and she had to go inside to get more. On the short trek back to the house she resolved that she was going to find him, no matter what. There was no way she was going to let Aden down.

She got herself cleaned up and dressed in warm, comfy clothes, then began to drive around the neighborhood, asking anyone she saw if they'd seen a big golden dog. Some of them skirted away without answering, but most just shook their heads and said, 'Sorry.'

She parked her car, thinking she might be less intimidating on foot, and headed a few blocks over, expanding her search area, trying to cover it as methodically as possible. There was one woman out in her yard raking the last of the leaves while a toddler played nearby.

"Excuse me," Lexa called. "Have you seen a dog? A Golden Retriever? He got out of the yard and—"

"Sure," the woman said. "Not just now, but I saw him earlier. I see him most days, always headed that way." She pointed. "And then in the evening I see him come back that way." She pointed again, back toward Lexa's house. "I thought about calling someone about it, but he always sticks to the sidewalks and if I didn't know better, I'd say he looks both ways before he crosses the street. So it seemed safe enough. And he always seems like he has such purpose, like a dog on a mission." She smiled.

Lexa blinked. Every day? He did this every day? And she hadn't noticed? Sure, she'd noticed he didn't have his collar on when she got home, but he'd always brought it to her when she asked so she'd just assumed he hated it... even though he didn't seem to have a problem with it on the weekends. It was almost as if he was removing it deliberately... maybe to keep it from snagging on the fence while he tunneled under?

Could he possibly be that smart?

"Thank you," Lexa said. "Thank you so much." She headed in the direction the woman had pointed... then turned back to get her car.

She had an idea.

"Hey Buddy," Clarke said. "Can you go answer the door? I'm busy."

She laughed at her own joke and slid out of her chair, waiting for him to follow her as he always did. It was probably just a delivery driver, needing her to sign for a package or something. She twisted the knob and opened the door...

... and Buddy bolted through it, straight into the arms of a startled-looking young woman who immediately dropped to her knees, wrapping her arms around the dog and sobbing into his fur. Clarke just watched, bewildered, as Buddy patiently licked her tears away.

"Um," Clarke finally said. "Can I help you?"

The woman looked up with red-rimmed eyes and a swollen, raw-looking nose. "This is my dog," she said.

Clarke blinked. "Oh." Even after she'd come to the conclusion that there must be someone else taking care of Buddy, she hadn't thought she would ever meet them. She certainly hadn't expected that when she did, they would be one of the most beautiful women she'd ever seen, even in the aftermath of ugly crying. "Maybe you should come in."

When the woman didn't move, Clarke tried again. "Come on, Buddy," she said. "Inside."

The dog hesitated, then took a step toward the door, looking back to check that the woman was following. It took her a minute for her to pick herself up, but finally she stepped inside. Clarke showed her where she could hang up her coat, then handed her a box of tissues, trying not to smirk at the impossibly loud (and kind of gross) honking as she blew her nose.

"Thanks," the woman said. "Sorry." She looked around, her eyes darting from one wall to another before settling on Clarke. "Buddy?"

"That's what I've been calling him," Clarke said with a shrug. "He didn't have any tags, so—"

The woman snorted. "Because he's been leaving his collar at home," she said. She pulled it from her pocket and held it up, and Buddy – or whatever his name was – hung his head in shame as she clipped it back around his neck.

"What is his name, anyway?" Clarke asked.

The woman grimaced, going shifty-eyed before finally muttering, "Fish."

"Fish?" Clarke asked, sure she'd heard wrong.

"Fish," she confirmed. "It's a long story."

"I've got time," Clarke said. Work could wait. "I was just about to get some lunch. Would you like to join me? I'm Clarke, by the way." She extended a hand.

The woman looked down at her own hands, which were full of used tissues, and gave a helpless shrug. "Lexa."

"Nice to meet you, Lexa," Clarke said. "And nice to meet you, Fish," she added. "Lunch?"

Lexa hesitated, shuffling her feet on the floor like she was trying to decide whether to step in farther or make a hasty getaway, but finally nodded. "Sure," she said. "I'd like that."

Lexa sat at the table in a house that was at once totally familiar and completely foreign because it had been hers and wasn't anymore, telling Clarke the story of how she'd come to own a dog named Fish while she made them soup and sandwiches. Lexa's stomach growled as she blew on a spoonful of soup. She'd barely eaten in the past few days; everything tasted like cardboard. But the soup was salty and savory and felt wonderful as it made its way down her raw throat.

"Your brother sounds adorable," Clarke said.

"He is," Lexa said. "He's amazing. I just hope his parents don't manage to beat—" She stopped, not wanting to give Clarke the wrong idea. "Pressure," she amended, "all of the softness out of him." She licked her lower lip and could practically feel Clarke's gaze zeroing in on the movement of her tongue. Lexa looked down at the flush of sudden heat that crawled up her neck and down her spine. "They would never lay a hand on him," she said. "But there are other ways to break a person."

Clarke reached across the table to squeeze Lexa's hand, a grim look on her face.

Lexa smiled her thanks and pulled away. "You probably want to wash that before you touch your food," she said. "I'm still all kinds of contagious."

Clarke got up and washed her hands, then returned and took a bite of her sandwich, chewing slowly. When she swallowed she said, "If there's anything I can do to help..."

"Thanks," Lexa said. She wasn't sure what Clarke could do, but the offer seemed genuine, and Lexa appreciated it. "So tell me the story of how you came to be a part-owner of my dog."

Clarke's smile brightened, and she told Lexa about how he'd shown up one morning, and she'd thought maybe he was lost or a stray, and how he'd disappeared at the end of the day, only to show up again the next morning. "Eventually I decided he might as well be comfortable while he's here," she said, gesturing to the bed he was lounging on while they ate. "What I can't figure out, though, is how he keeps getting out."

"The back gate," Lexa said. "The yard is on a slight incline, so it looks like it's closed, but the latch is wonky so it doesn't latch automatically. He figured out how to nose it open."

Clarke looked at her, her forehead furrowed. "How do you know that?" she asked.

"I used to live here," Lexa said. "This was my house."

Clarke's eyes went wide. "You're the seller I never met!"

"Guilty as charged," Lexa said. "I had to go out-of-state temporarily for work. It was a whole thing." She rolled her eyes and waved her hand dismissively. "I meant to fix the latch before I left, or at least warn the new owner, but I forgot."

Clarke shrugged. "Now I know," she said. Something flickered in her eyes as she stared down at her soup... but the next moment she was smiling again, asking more about Aden and Fish as a puppy and Lexa and what she did and where she lived now and before Lexa knew it, the food was gone and she had no more reason to stay.

"Thank you for lunch," she said. "And for taking care of my naughty dog. We'll let you get back to work. Come on, Fish. Time to go home."

Fish got up and came over, and Lexa clipped on his leash.

"Can I just...?" Clarke gestured toward Fish, and Lexa nodded. Clarke knelt down and put her arms around the dog, rubbing his ears in the way he liked best. "Hey buddy," she said softly. "You've been a great coworker. Best I've ever had. But you've got a home and a family who loves you, and—" She swallowed. "I'm going to miss you." She kissed his head and straightened, and Lexa could see the tears pooling in her eyes even as she forced a smile. "Thanks for letting me borrow your dog."

Lexa nodded, and headed for the door, but stopped with her hand on the knob and looked back. "Actually," she said. "Maybe we can work something out..."

Every morning, Clarke waited by the door for Lexa's car to pull up, opening it as Lexa released Fish from the back seat, crouching down to be smothered in doggy kisses. Sometimes Lexa was in a hurry, but sometimes she stayed and chatted for a few minutes, and occasionally even had a cup of tea while Clarke drank her morning coffee before heading into the office. In the evening when she came to pick him up, Clarke never had him quite ready to go, forcing Lexa to come in out of the chill while she waited. Sometimes Clarke invited her to stay for dinner, and at first Lexa demurred, but more and more often she said yes, until they were having dinner together more evenings than not, often at Clarke's house, but sometimes out, and after a few weeks Lexa suggested maybe Clarke might like to come to her place and let Lexa take over the cooking responsibilities for once... and maybe make some suggestions for how Lexa could make the place feel a little more homey.

Clarke wasn't sure when her feelings turned from friendly to romantic. Lexa had mentioned ex-girlfriends, but Clarke knew better than to assume that meant Lexa was interested in her. But she wasn't stupid, and she wasn't blind. She could feel Lexa watching her sometimes as she moved around the kitchen, and saw how her cheeks flushed pale rose when Clarke caught her, even as she flashed a shy smile. She noticed how Lexa settle a little closer to her every time they sat down together to watch a movie or a few episodes of something on Netflix, and how her touch lingered when Clarke handed over Fish's leash, or a mug of tea, or a bowl or plate for Lexa to bring to the table.

She noticed everything, but she hesitated to make a move, because she knew Lexa had a lot going on – her concern for her little brother only seemed to grow every time she visited – and she didn't want to distract her from the things that were most important.

But a little part of her wondered if maybe Lexa might welcome a distraction every once in a while...

On Christmas Eve she got a text from Lexa.

Lexa: Are you home?

Clarke: Yes.

Clarke: Do you need me to watch Fish?

They hadn't talked about it beforehand, but maybe something had come up. A last-minute invitation to a party, maybe, and Lexa didn't want to leave Fish home alone. Clarke hoped it wasn't anything bad.

Lexa: Not exactly.

Lexa: I'll be there soon.

Lexa: Don't hate me.

Don't hate me? What on earth did that mean? Clarke started to type a response, but if Lexa said she was going to be there soon, that meant she was probably driving, and Clarke didn't want to distract her, especially since it had started to snow. Just a light dusting, but sometimes that was worse.

Clarke watched out the window until she saw Lexa's car pull up. She opened the door and watched her as she reached into the back seat, coming out with a bundle of blankets or something that Clarke couldn't make out in the dark. Fish was at her heels, dancing through the snow and snapping at the snowflakes, having the time of his life, but when Lexa called him, he was immediately at her heels, following her inside.

"Why would I hate you?" Clarke blurted.

"I brought you a present," Lexa said, and flipped back the corner of the blanket to reveal a little golden bundle of fluff, which blinked sleepy eyes and sneezed. "I know you were thinking about getting a dog of you own and I've been kind of keeping an eye on different rescue groups – I know, I know, not my place – and this little girl popped up and she was the last of a litter that all got snapped up but she's got a problem with her eyes – it's easy to fix but who wants a defective puppy for Christmas? And I just... I had to. And Fish is already in love with her but I'm at work so much it doesn't seem fair for me to keep her and you're home all the time and—"

"Are you going to give her to me or what?" Clarke asked.

Lexa looked at her, blinking just like the puppy, and silently transferred her into Clarke's arms. "The rescue named all of the puppies after painters," she said. "When I saw that, I knew it was fate."

"What's her name?" Clarke asked, kissing the pup's tiny nose.

"Picasso," Lexa said. "But you can change it if—"

"Picasso is perfect," Clarke said. "Especially for a little girl who sees the world just a little bit differently than the rest of us."

The uncertainty melted from Lexa's face, replaced by a smile and a look that answered all the questions Clarke had but didn't dare ask.

"I have a present for you, too," Clarke said. She carried Picasso into her office and set her down on the dog bed, where Fish curled around her like a protective older brother, keeping her warm and safe while Clarke turned back to Lexa.

"Oh?" Lexa asked as Clarke closed the distance between them.

"Mmhmm..." Clarke slid one hand around the back of Lexa's neck, the other resting on her hip as she pulled their bodies together, their lips meeting in a kiss easy as breathing.

"Oh," Lexa whispered when they pulled apart again, a smile tugging at her lips.

"Mmhmm," Clarke said, and kissed her again. This one was longer, deeper, more intense and more intimate as Lexa responded by wrapping her arms around Clarke so there was no part of them not touching.

When their mouths finally slid apart, they buried their face in each other's necks, panting. When Clarke had caught her breath, she lifted her lips to brush Lexa's ear. "If you stay, there's more to unwrap in the morning."

Lexa shivered, her fingers knotting in Clarke's shirt. "What if I want to open it now?"

Clarke smiled. "I might be able to be persuaded..."

Lexa looked over at the dogs, sleeping in their bed. "Watch your little sister," she told Fish. "We'll be upstairs if you need us."

And because Lexa used to live here, she knew exactly where the bedroom was, and led the way up the stairs even though it was Clarke's house now. She only hesitated when she reached the threshold and realized – or maybe remembered – it wasn't her room.

"Don't get shy on me now," Clarke said, nudging the door open with her hip as she hooked Lexa's beltloops and pulled her in. She watched as Lexa took the room in, maybe comparing it to what it had been, or maybe just wanting to know what the place where Clarke slept looked like. Clarke gave her a few minutes before tracing a finger along her jaw, drawing her attention back to herself.

A slow, sly smile slid across Lexa's face, and their bodies collided as they pulled each other in. Lexa sucked Clarke's lower lip into her mouth, her teeth raking the tender flesh, then soothing it with the tip of her tongue, and Clarke moaned and clawed at the small of her back. This only seemed to encourage Lexa, who continued to kiss and nip and suck at Clarke's skin: her lips along her jaw, her earlobes and down her neck, and Clarke wasn't sure she wasn't leaving marks but she didn't care. She would wear a turtleneck tomorrow when she went to see her family if she had to.

Lexa made fast work of the zipper of Clarke's hoodie, and then the one on her jeans, pulling and tugging and casting the garments aside as they came off, and then moved on to her t-shirt and panties (she hadn't been planning on going anywhere so she wasn't wearing a bra) while Clarke toed off her own socks.

"You know," Clarke said, when there was nothing left for Lexa to do but stand back and admire the gift she'd been given, "I had you pegged for a peel away the paper slowly, careful not to rip it, maybe even save it for later type."

Lexa paused in her study of Clarke's body – every line and curve of it – and smiled. "Nope," she said. "Tear it to shreds and get to the good stuff all the way." But now that the wrapping was gone, the urgency faded, and when she touched Clarke again, it was with awed reverence. Because she'd wanted this for so long – almost from the day they'd met, if she was being honest – and now she had it, and—

"I won't break," Clarke said, breathlessly amused. "I promise." And she took Lexa's hand and pressed it more firmly to her flesh, cupping her fingers over her breast so the tight bud of her nipple poked into her palm.

And the shyness, or uncertainty, or whatever it was, faded, and Lexa pressed Clarke back into the sheets, skinning out of her jeans so the material didn't rub against delicate flesh, but keeping on her flannel and undershirt, and Clarke didn't try to stop her. Maybe she liked having something to grab onto and dig her fingers into as Lexa began, ever-so-slowly, inch-by-inch, to devour her.

Clarke bucked and writhed and moaned and keened as Lexa made her way down... all the way down and back up again, and Lexa had to hold her thighs and pin her hips to keep from being smothered as she buried her tongue, thrusting shallowly, then licking upward to her clit, flicking and circling with the tip, kissing and sucking and starting all over again until Clarke was thrashing, and Lexa found exactly the right pattern and rhythm to send her over the edge.

She slid up Clarke's body and settled beside her, pulling her into her arms as she shivered, though Lexa didn't think it was with cold. Slowly, Clarke came back to herself, nuzzling and kissing Lexa's neck while she caught her breath, and then slipping her hands under her clothing and carefully, bit by bit, peeling it away.

"And here I thought you'd be a 'tear it up, let god sort it out' girl," Lexa teased.

"And I thought I was your present, but you're the one doing all the giving," Clarke answered.

"Trust me," Lexa said, smoothing back her hair, "I got everything I wanted and then some."

Clarke paused, a crease forming between her brows. "Do you not—"

Lexa realized her mistake and shook her head, smiling. "Don't worry, I'm perfectly happy to get more than one present. I'm greedy that way."

Clarke grinned. "I guess we'll have to see just how many will fit under the tree, then," she said, and they both laughed at the slightly awkward analogy, and then Lexa gasped as her panties joined her jeans on the floor, and Clarke's fingers slipped between her legs.

They had to pause to check on the dogs, descending the stairs on wobbly legs, and the chill of the air was a shock on Lexa's flushed skin, even through her borrowed sweatpants, as she went to the car to retrieve the puppy's crate while Clarke supervised their potty break.

Once they had them settled in for the night, though, it was back upstairs, and Lexa quickly lost count of gifts given and received, and of course it was quality over quantity but there was plenty of both to go around. Finally, though, they collapsed in a tangle, unable to summon the energy to move even a finger. Lexa knew that sleep would claim them soon enough, quickly and without warning, but there was one last thing...

"Come with me tomorrow," Lexa said. "When I go to see Aden. Come with me. We can bring Picasso."

Clarke cracked open her eyes. "Will that be okay?" she asked.

"No," Lexa said. "Totally not. But they don't even want me showing up, so..." She managed a tiny twitch that might have been a shrug.

"So it'll be drama no matter what?"

"Exactly," Lexa said. "And if there's going to be drama, there might as well be drama with puppies." She grinned, and Clarke felt herself smiling back.

Was it a terrible idea? Sure. Would she regret it? Maybe. Was she going to do it anyway? Absolutely.

"Yeah, okay," she said. "I can't wait to meet Aden."

"He's going to love you," Lexa said.

"Me, or Picasso?" Clarke asked.

Lexa laughed. "Both," she said.

Clarke stole a kiss then burrowed deep into Lexa's arms. "Both is good."