Canis Lupus

The warehouse was getting darker.

Darkness meant that night was coming on, and night meant the end of her shift on the production line was near. Thank god for small graces.

Around her, the other workers quietly continued to work, heads bowed submissively as their fingers retraced patterns they had followed so often, they could have repeated them in their sleep. Perhaps some of the others were essentially sleeping…certainly Ling had rarely paid attention to the movement of her hands once she'd learned what they needed to do. Even now, as Ling's thin fingers nimbly dodged back and forth, sewing up the hole in the plush toy's side, her mind was elsewhere.

I wonder if we'll make the rent this month, she wondered idly, trying to ignore the protests of her empty stomach. She hadn't eaten since yesterday and her body was less than pleased with her at the moment. Funny how she could still feel hungry at the same time every morning, even though she never ate until the same time every night. Her stomach ought to have learned by now that bothering her wasn't going to get it fed. She wished it would leave her alone. It was harder to concentrate on what you needed to do when all you could think of was the fact that you hadn't eaten in so many hours…

Her fingers faltered for an instant and Ling quickly snapped out of her pointless thoughts, berating herself for messing up. The more she let herself be distracted, the longer it took her to finish a job and the less she would get paid. The less she got paid, the less the family got to eat, and the guiltier she would feel. It would be at least another year before her brother would be old enough to work at one of the many factories around the city. Maybe things would be better then, with the added income to supplement the ones she and her parents already brought home. Maybe they wouldn't have to live in that tiny little one room hut anymore…

…but she'd thought that when she was going off to work, and little had actually changed. All of her hard work had amounted to perhaps a few more portions of rice a month.

The plushy she was working on was almost done now. Small black eyes peered up at her guilelessly as she glanced over the finished product for any small details she might have missed.

The boss didn't like it when you forgot something. Everything seemed to be alright, though; no sections of the gray and white 'fur' stuck out.

Without another thought, Ling tossed the finished stuffed animal into her bin, and reached for the bolt of fuzzy cloth from which she would need to cut the next toy's hide. The cute features and cuddly appearance of the toys she created completely escaped the girl these days…she'd seen them too many times, and she had other things to think about. Last month they'd made baby tigers. The month before that, it had been fluffy white teddy bears. The bears had been difficult to work with; the dirt embedded in her fingers were easier to see in the snowy white fur.

Eyelids drooping with fatigue, Ling began to create yet one more in an unending series of stuffed toys. A lock of thick black hair came loose from her bun and drifted down to partially obscure one of her tired brown eyes. Home soon, she thought, trying not to think about how much longer her shift was and the long, lonely walk home she would have to endure before finally being able to shut her stomach up and sleep.

From the worn gray bin at her side, a small muzzle poked over the rim, a frozen smile on its sealed lips and the soft material of one pointed ear flopping down to partially obscure the hollowed-out ear.

The city was beautiful in the winter. If there was one thing Natalie absolutely adored, it was walking through the streets when it was just beginning to snow. The crisp tang of the air was delicious to her senses, made her feel awake and refreshed. Happy to be alive.

Her step was light as she slid her coat and hat on, turning to lock the door to her beloved little curio shop before quickly digging her mitts out of the recesses of her pockets. Grinning in delight, she made her way down the street, fully intending to indulge in her all-time favorite pastime: window-shopping.

A quick glance at her watch reaffirmed her suspicion that she wasn't due to meet John for another 3 hours and therefore ran no risk of having to curtail her enjoyment for the sake of punctuality.

Natalie wondered where John was planning on taking her tonight… another restaurant, perhaps? It didn't really matter. Stopping to admire a jeweler's display, a brief frown crossed over her face as she caught sight of a thin, diamond ring.

What if John proposed to her?

They'd been together for a long time, and things had started to get serious a while back. She genuinely liked John –he was fun, and thoughtful- but then, she'd already been married twice, and she'd liked the other two as well, hadn't she? She must have, at some point. Why else would she have married them?

But did she really want to throw herself into all of that again? Neither marriage had lasted very long and her family already looked at her kind of strangely –like they thought she had problems with commitment or something.

Which she most certainly did not, thank you very much.

But if she never tried, she'd never know if he were really the one she was looking for, and then what good would that be? It was all too confusing; she needed time to think things through and reason it all out in her mind. Please, if there is a God, don't let him ask soon. She just needed to time to think.

As per her usual routine, Natalie took a detour into one of her favorite shops; a little knickknacks store that was run by a good friend of hers. "Hey, Lisa," she greeted the small woman at the counter cheerfully, pushing aside her heavy thoughts for the moment. "What's up?"

Lisa shrugged. "Same old, same old. You know how it is." A slight smile turned the corners of her lips upward. "I see you're in a good mood today."

Natalie's grin grew. "Well, why not? It's a beautiful day," she beamed, looking and sounding for all the world like a six-year-old on a happy-binge. Lisa raised a dark brow.

"It's cold out."

"Exactly." The implied 'duh' in her tone was enough to send Lisa's eyes rolling.

"Whatever you say." She gave up; they'd been over this many times, and Lisa had never managed to convert her friend to her more warmth-loving preferences. "Looking for anything in particular today?"

"No, not really. Just browsing." With another grin and a short wave of her hand, Natalie wove her way to the back of the shop and began to root through the various items. About five minutes into her search, she came across an adorable little stuffed wolf with gray and white fur and a child-like look of innocence on its man-made face. One pointed ear was folded over cutely and there was a thin chain collar looped around its neck.

"You are far too cute for your own good," she told it, holding it up near her face.

The stuffed wolf seemed to agree.

Without another thought, she wove her way back to the front and plopped the toy down on the counter. "It's for my niece," she answered the unspoken question. "Her birthday's in a few weeks. This'll be perfect."

Lisa smiled and tucked the toy gently into a small paper bag.

Sara slid into her room and shut the door. God, she'd thought that would never end. Not that she'd expected a family birthday party to be fun, but still…

Flopping down carelessly onto her bed, Sara closed her eyes against the cheerful light of the lamp on her desk; a barf-worthy rendition of an oversized, rotund little Disney-like mouse holding a lamp. The thing was smiling so brightly its eyes were shut, and the only way to turn it on was to tap its perfect, pink little nose.

The thing was so cute it was nauseating.

She had to get rid of the thing, but she couldn't seem to convince her parents that she needed a new one. Maybe if she 'accidentally' broke it…

"Sara?" Her mother was tapping gently at her door.

"Yeah?" she replied unenthusiastically. Her mother opened the door, arms full of the various gifts her daughter had received that evening.

"You forgot to bring up you gifts, dear," she pointed out, putting said gifts down on an uncluttered section of the desk. "Don't get too comfortable; we're having dinner soon."

" 'kay," muttered Sara, as her mom left the room. When she was alone again, her eyes strayed to this year's pile of newly-acquired junk that she'd forgotten to drag upstairs with her.

Forgotten. Yeah, right.

She'd been hoping that maybe this year would be different, that maybe they'd start to realize that she wasn't as young and stupid and 'cute' as they all thought she was and treat her accordingly.

What a foolish thought.

They'd treated just as they always had; patronizing. But damn it, today should have meant something to them, should have opened up their eyes and made them realize that she was getting too old for this kiddy stuff. She was twelve now for God's sakes; didn't that mean anything to these people?

But no, they insisted on showering her with childish gifts like…Sara vengefully reached into the pile and plucked out one of the toys she'd been given…like this little stuffed wolf, for instance. In the first place, things like wolves were not supposed to be cute, and in the second, only children played with stuffed animals. That hadn't stopped her aunt from getting her one, though.

Her aunt. God, her aunt was a freaking nutcase. She was always way too cheerful and…well, perky. Far too perky. She'd already been married twice and might just be heading for a third. She'd refused to join in the family business so she could strike off on her own… which would have been fine if she'd actually accomplished anything. She hadn't gone into a prestigious field, hadn't studied anything difficult and interesting, and her curio shop was going nowhere. Sara had been there once or twice; the place was tiny and crammed with stuff from floor to ceiling.

She was surrounded by whackos. Life sucked.

"Sara, dinner," came her mother's voice from downstairs, and Sara refrained from snarling something at the door. For some reason she could never quite piece together, she hated it when her mother called her down like that.

With a sigh of disgust, Sara tossed the wolf in the general direction of the lamp. Maybe she could play 'throw the cute wolf at the cute mouse' later. If she were lucky, maybe she'd get the plushy to knock the thing off the desk and break it.

One could only hope.

Rays of sunlight make the newly-fallen snow glint brilliantly. It looks wonderfully soft. Everything is quiet in the tundra, few animals have decided to leave the sanctuary of their dens and burrows to see what this cold winter morning has to offer.

Up above, a winged black shadow glides aimlessly. Sharp-looking claws clutch a small prize, recently liberated from a local garbage heap. Lugging the thing around is beginning to get annoying, however. What started out as amusing and interesting has since become quite boring, and as the bird swoops closer to the ground, scaly claws finally release their long-held burden. The crow flies off.

At the end of the plane a dark shadow comes into view, slowly approaching; a gray wolf. The wolf ambles along, unhurried, toward the spot where the crow had deposited its load.

On its side, lying so softly on top of the snow that it doesn't even make a dent in the crust, is a small, plush version of a wolf. Its eyes are wide, the muzzle is too short and blunt while the ears are too pointed. The legs aren't nearly long enough. The smile is absurd.

The wolf doesn't recognize it as a representation of itself, seeing only a small bundle of oddly shaped gray fluff.

It sniffs at the thing curiously. The fluff doesn't move.

The wolf gently nudges it with its nose and, though the movement causes the thing to tumble onto its back, there is still no sign of life.

The wolf loses interest and trots away, searching for something else to entertain itself with, or perhaps it seeks a bit of fresh meat to satisfy the annoying little rumble in its belly.

A single snowflake flutters down to lie on the toy's forehead and others come down to join it. It isn't long before white has hidden most of the gray.