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"So," Doyle said lazily. "This is better for you than last year, isn't it."
Stretched out on the rug in front of the fire, Bodie yawned before replying. "Yeah - reckon it is."
"What did you do last year?" Doyle asked curiously. "You've never said much..."
"Not much to say," Bodie replied, too quickly.
"Come on, mate," Doyle growled. "You were out in the wilds - I know that much from what Cowley said..." He paused expectantly.
Finally, Bodie said reluctantly, "Yeah. Wasn't easy. There had been two of us, but Bob got himself shot trying to pinch a chicken - silly bugger wasn't paying proper attention. Was obvious he was dead. I moved on the same night - better to get away in case they realised Bob wasn't alone and came looking for me - I didn't want to get shot at. Didn't really know where I was going, though. Then the weather turned really bad before I'd gone more than four or five miles. I found a sort of cave... if you can call it that, it was really the space under where two or three trees had fallen across each other. Wasn't much, but it broke the wind and kept off the worst of the wet. But I was stuck there for nearly a week, nothing to eat, 'n it was cold. An' lonely. Bob and I'd been together for nearly two years before..."
He fell silent; Doyle left his comfortable chair and sat on the rug beside his friend. "You've got me now, mate."
"Yeah, I know. I'm not ungrateful, Doyle, never think it... but I do still miss Bob."
"Of course you do. I still miss my old mate Sid."
"He was killed too, wasn't he?" Bodie asked.
"Run down by a car. Drunk driver - swerved onto the pavement. Killed instantly. Must've been about the same time you lost Bob - just before Christmas last year."
"Yeah. Just before Christmas. Not that it would've been much of a Christmas for us anyway, stuck out in that 'cave', even if we'd still been together."
"You never thought about tryin' to get back to your base?"
"How could we? We'd been given our orders. 'Stay there', the boss said. No obvious reason. We thought he'd come back for us. But he didn't. 'N I dunno why. That hurts almost more than losin' Bob. Why didn't the boss come back for us? We were loyal to him, Doyle. Dammit, we loved him. We thought he was loyal to us, was fond of us. But he went off 'n left us and didn't come back. It was hard enough disobeying him and moving away after Bob was shot."
"Sometimes it happens," Doyle said reluctantly. He thought for a moment. "Had anything unusual happened before that?"
"Yes. It was funny - his second went out the day before and didn't come back. Left a note for the boss. He read it and sort of went all quiet, as if it was bad news. He got drunk that night. Didn't often get drunk."
Doyle leaned over Bodie and nuzzled his neck. "I'm sorry. Didn't mean to remind you of all that..."
"'S okay. We're mates, I should have told you before now."
There was a long, not quite comfortable pause while Doyle tried to comfort his friend, knowing how much anguish he must have suffered. Finally Bodie sighed. "Well, that's in the past. When the weather improved I left the shelter - went looking for something to eat. Someone saw me, contacted the authorities, and I was picked up. By then I was so cold and hungry it didn't seem to matter any more. At least the cell was warmer than outside, and they fed me. And a few days later Cowley arrived and rescued me."
"I wasn't too sure of you at first, you know," Doyle said. "And I sort of resented you for comin' in an' taking Sid's place. But you looked so thin and miserable I reckoned you deserved a break. It didn't take me that long though to realise the boss knew what he was doin'. We make a good team."
"Yes, we do, don't we?" Bodie said more happily.
There was the sound of the outside door opening and closing, and they both came to their feet. Doyle ran to the door and pulled it open; side by side they rattled down the stair, jumping up at the man who had just entered.
"Hello, boss!" Doyle barked.
"We missed you!" Bodie whined. "You've been away for just ages!"
"Down, lads!" Cowley said affectionately but in a tone the two dogs knew had to be obeyed. They subsided, panting, contented now that their master had returned, unutterably happy when he patted their heads.
And while Bodie, his trust in Man still not wholly restored, could only hope for the future, Doyle knew that Cowley would never abandon them as Bodie's original master had abandoned him - after two years - probably because his mate had left him.
Quietly satisfied, the dogs followed their master back up the stair into the living room. He switched on the lights on the Christmas tree, and as he sat down, they leaned against his legs.
Their world was once again complete.