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Winter's Game

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It had been almost two months since his death.

 

Heart had awoken the next day still cradling his now cold friend in his paws, the sun shining brightly behind the feline as he stared out into the distant, towering buildings as their lights dimmed down against the sunlight.

 

The cat knew his friend was gone. Had been since before he even drifted off to sleep that night; feeling the slow and shallow breathing of the little rodent crawl to a halt in his arms as Heart desperately tried to lure himself into sleep.

 

He wanted to dream of the next day with Mad Rat by his side. He dreamed of discussing their next step in life as the sun rose behind the two, the rat shining his bright, pointed teeth at the orange cat as he smiled widely. Happy to be alive with his friend.

 

Heart wanted so badly to wake up to the rat's rugged voice, to see his tail swishing around as he crossed his arms and grinned up at his feline partner. He would smile back at the rodent and carry him around the city, admiring the sights and sounds of the area, and visit the park to take in the fall breeze and play in the crisp leaves littering the ground.

 

He wanted so, so badly to race with Mad Rat around the forest, laughing and running side by side with his small companion. They would visit the black cat hiding in the shadows of the old brick walls around the park area, their soft meows greeting the two as they would ask the cat about their day. They could even be lucky enough to see the little girl again, dancing around the trees and playing in the piles of fallen leaves as Heart and Mad Rat played along, laughing all the while.

 

And they'd be happy. Happy to be alive and free. Free of the parasitistic "Rat God", free of the lab, free of illness and pain and death.

 

Yes, they would just be free.

 

But Heart woke up that morning to the cold reality of their situation.

 

His best friend was dead.

 

Dead in his paws, cold as stone against the cat's warm, soft fur. Just as expected, without the transplant, Mad Rat's heart had failed and he quietly went in his sleep, cuddled up against his feline partner. He didn't even look dead, Heart had thought, just sleeping peacefully in his arms.

 

It was probably the most peaceful the rat had looked in his entire life. 

 

Heart sighed. He needed to move, yet his eyes and body were glued in place, focusing everything onto this small gray rat still resting in his arms. Maybe...he was actually just sleeping still. Maybe he miraculously didn't pass away last night in the cat's paws and he was just sleeping in.

 

The cat licked at his friend's fur, a subconscious attempt to awaken his friend, to no avail of course. Denial gripped at the orange feline's mind, telling him to keep trying to wake the rat up. Surely, surely he'll wake up eventually. He's just a heavy sleeper is all.

 

Despite all the licks, the nudges, the calls and the pleading...Mad Rat did not wake up.

 

Soon, Heart gave up and simply hugged the stiff, cold body of his friend tightly, the sun rising higher into the sky behind him and shining it's warm rays onto the world. A cruel gesture, the cat thought, in regards to his situation. Why must the sun shine today when his friend, his only friend in his entire life, was gone?

 

In the afternoon, Heart had found the perfect spot to bury the rat. A nice, untouched hill residing far into the park with a wonderful view of the city and the perfect spot for the moon to shine it's light over at night. The cat sighed. He was sure Mad Rat would approve of this spot for his body to rest in.

 

After patting down the last bit of dirt, Heart went to work on a makeshift grave marker for his friend. Heart vaguely remembers seeing graves being marked with stones and sticks planet into the ground, behind the buried spot of the grave. Tying the two sticks together, Heart stuck the marker into the ground, nailing it down with his paws as the stick firmly dug its way into the earth.

 

After that was done, Heart added one last thing to his friend's grave. Around the makeshift marker, the cat had tied on Mad Rat's lab tag as a way to mark his name onto the grave marker, despite the tag itself housing nothing but numbers. Heart stood back and admired his work, assuring himself that Mad Rat would like what he'd done. Thought, maybe he'd more likely be annoyed at first that it's nothing but shabby.

 

Heart chuckled sadly to himself as he thought this. Yeah...he would want a better grave, wouldn't he? The cat sat in front of the grave for what felt like forever, the wind blowing strongly against his body and the trees around him, leaves dancing away as they fly around the hills and bushes. The sun was setting now and the sky was painted in blues and pinks and golds.

 

Mustering the strength to move, Heart knelt down at the grave, holding back his tears as he shut his eyes.

 

"I'll come visit you as much as I can, okay?" Heart promised.

 

With that, the cat takes one last look towards his friend's grave and heads off back into the park, the wind and leaves following close behind.




Since that day, all Heart had done was wander aimlessly in the streets of the city. He tried so hard to keep visiting Mad Rat, but with the colder weather announcing the arrival of winter and the lack of food and shelter sapping the feline's strength each day, Heart found himself visiting the grave less and less.

 

Nothing upset him more than failing to keep his promise. It was the last possible thing he could do for his friend and even now, he was failing that one simple task.

 

Night was falling soon and so was the gentle flurry of snowflakes decorating the roads and buildings with white, glittering blankets of snow. Heart felt his paws ache from the cold as he kept walking through the alleyways. Despite his searches, he couldn't find any safe form of shelter or any edible food among the scattered garbage and bins.

 

He had not seen the black cat in forever, not since he visited him to convince him not to eat rats anymore. Though, strangely the feline seemed to remember him and Mad Rat, not even touching a single rat throughout the whole day, from what Heart had been told. The orange feline hoped his fellow cat was doing alright, especially considering winter's arrival.

 

The cat's thoughts were interrupted as he slipped on a small patch of ice and fell face first onto the cold, hard ground. His stomach roared and his entire body ached in pain and fatigue. Heart looked at his paws and found his toes were becoming red with fresh blood, sores and blisters decorating his frozen paws.

 

Heart simply sighed in defeat. There was no way he was surviving the winter at this rate. He was too afraid to approach any humans for fear of them either turning him away, bringing him back to that lab, or just simply mistreating him. God knows how used he was to that, Heart thought looking back at his blistered, clawless paws.

 

The flurries became more frequent as they threatened to bury the feline in snow should he remain still for any longer. Mustering all his strength, Heart rose back up and kept walking further into the alley. Soon he found himself in front of a busy road, cars and trucks passing by freely as he watched from the sidelines.

 

Heart's legs gave out once again as he crumpled on the spot with a thud, pain shooting throughout his body and his stomach crying in anger. Cars continued to pass by, paying no mind to the orange feline lying in the middle of the alleyway.

 

He wanted to cry. Heart was too tired to cry at this point. All he could do was whine in pain as the sounds of traffic filled his ears and as more and more snow started to fall down onto him. His paws chipped and cracked from the cold, blood seeping through the blisters as the cat shivered from the freezing winds, unable to protect himself from the elements any longer.

 

Was he going to die tonight? His entire body ached in pain, he was starving and it was freezing. He couldn't move anymore, everything hurt. All he could do was watch the cars pass in front of him and watch the snow fall before him.

 

Maybe...maybe that was for the best.

 

Ever since Mad Rat died, Heart couldn't find any real reason to live. He had nothing in life even before he was sent to that lab, killed and had his heart placed into the rat. No one wanted him, even as a kitten, and those who did take him in regretted it and tried to change him. He lost his claws, lost plenty of homes and shelters and simply had no one to care for him.

 

Mad Rat was all Heart had in his life anymore at that point...and now even he was gone.

 

The wind became harsher as it blew against the feline, snowflakes and the icy breeze pierced Heart's body. He had no energy and now didn't even have any will left. What's even left in this world for such a pathetic cat like him? He couldn't even save his friend from death.

 

Heart shut his eyes. He couldn't save him...he couldn't...

 

"Heart, will you listen to my wish?"

 

...

 

"You shouldn't die with me, Heart."

 

...He didn't want that. He didn't want to live without his reason to do so. He couldn't...

 

"Please, Heart...it's my last wish."

 

...no.

 

"...Let me save you. I know it's selfish."

 

please...no....

 

"Give me a reason to die."

 

...you shouldn't have died, though. I was supposed to save you, to let you live longer. I had one, final purpose for my miserable existence and I failed. I failed what I was meant to do...and I failed you, Mad Rat...

 

I'm sorry...I'm so sorry, Mad Rat...I...

 

"I won't live for nothing."

 

I...

 

"I'll die with meaning!"

 

...

 

"Please, Heart...make my last wish come true."

 

...

 

"I don't want to live if it means sacrificing the life of my friend!"

 

...friend...

 

...he wanted me to live....because i was...his friend...

 

Heart's eyes burned as he tightened his paws together, the wind continued its assault on his body. 

 

That's right...Mad Rat was going to die anyways. He was dead from the start after all, just as he said.

 

"I'm dying because I'm alive."

 

There was nothing Heart could do, was there? 

 

Fate had it against him it seemed. None of this was fair! Nobody wanted him and the only person who did want him is gone! What kind of life is he meant to live if everything just goes wrong all the time? It wasn't fair! He should've died with Mad Rat! He should've just let the transplant happen!

 

That way he wouldn't hurt so much right now. His own heart wouldn't ache so badly. Why...why couldn't he have died with his only friend?! Why was fate so cruel to him?!

 

Heart muttered out a cry of agony, only for it to be masked by the traffic before him.

 

The snow had become more frequent, falling slowly as the powdery ice piled up more and more around the orange feline. Cars and people continued to pass by, ignoring the cries of the freezing cat as he shivered against the cold, his body screaming in pain and his paws chapped beyond use.

 

Still, Heart slowly felt a burning sensation in his chest as he watched the world ignore him. Mad Rat's words echoed in his mind as he remembered all the times he had seen the rat die, failing a jump or simply being crushed by an obstacle. Despite it all, the rat kept going. Despite knowing his eventual fate, despite how afraid he was of dying even to the end, the rat kept on going.

 

Mad Rat had refused to die until he reached his goal, until he had left his mark on the world. He refused death's call until he was able to save his friend from sharing the same fate as him. He sacrificed everything in order to let his feline friend live on...how could he now lay here, freezing to death in this dirty old alley?

 

Heart struggled to lift himself up, his body protesting his movement. Mad Rat wouldn't want his friend to die here. No matter what, he would want him to live on and find his own purpose in life. Not as a lab animal, not as the replacement heart for a dying rat, but as his own person. That's why, wasn't it? He just wanted his friend to live.

 

The cat slugged his way onto the sidewalk, despite his blurred vision blocking his surroundings. He had to keep living. He had to live for his friend. It was his last wish after all, why would he waste such an important request here? Pain shot through the feline's body as he trudged his way forward, the sounds of the city, wind and cars filling his head as he demanded his legs to move.

 

It wasn't until he tripped on the sidewalk's edge and landed against the concrete of the road did Heart realize how bad his predicament was. He really had no strength to go on, at least his body didn't. He was too weak to move properly, the cold and pain taking over his body as he shook and cried.

 

Heart cursed to himself as he laid halfway onto the road. He didn't want to die, not here! He had to live! He needed to live his life fully before he could even think of joining his friend, yet his body refused to respond to his cries.

 

The orange feline looked up to see a car approaching him, bright headlights shining onto the crumpled form of the pathetic creature. It didn't see him, it didn't hear him. Heart could only stare into the lights of the oncoming vehicle, the sound of the engine surrounded him as the lights nearly blinded his already blurred vision.

 

He was going to die here, wasn't he? Turning back time meant nothing if his body didn't want to move anyways. He'd still be too weak to keep going on, and the cold would eventually take him if his empty stomach didn't do so first. Heart could only shut his eyes and lay his head onto the freezing road and wait for the car to reach him.

 

Well, it would until Heart faintly heard the cries and calls of a young child, as she rushed from the sidewalk towards the fallen feline. She waved her hands around and shouted at the vehicle, begging for it to stop as she approached the cat. The car halted to a near immediate stop as the little girl stood between it and Heart, the cat looked up lazily towards the child in confusion.

 

Once the car had completely stopped, the kid looked back down at Heart and the cat found himself recognizing the double braided girl. She was wearing a white winter coat; purple and pink gloves, scarf and hat covered her body as she stared down in concern at the frozen feline. But the dark brown hair and wide eyes were all Heart needed in order to recognize this human.

 

This was the same girl he and Mad Rat had saved before.

 

The child knelt down and gently picked up the freezing cat, hugging him against her body. Despite Heart's fuzzy vision, he could see the girl's face light up as she also seemed to recognize the cat. He figured the heart shaped mark on his chest gave that away. The girl spoke incoherently at the cat, her voice muffled by the wind and traffic, let along Heart's own thoughts flooding his mind.

 

What was she going to do with him? Take him to her home? Send him to someone else? Maybe even give him back to that human in the lab. God, he hoped she wouldn't do such a thing to him, not after all he's been through. Heart snapped out of his thoughts as the girl's head turned towards the sound of the car door being opened. A tall man stepped out of the car, distorted words escaped his mouth as he approached the child sitting on the road.

 

Heart's eyes widened as he stared at the man. He couldn't see his face, he was tall and held his hands out towards the cat. Faceless. Like that human...back in the lab. Panic rose in his chest. Was he the same person?? Did he finally find him and wished to take him back to the lab?

 

No, no no no no!!

 

Adrenaline flooded his body as Heart sprang out of the girl's arms and ran off onto the sidewalk, ignoring the calls from both the girl and the man. He couldn't go back to that lab, he couldn't! Not after everything! Not after all Mad Rat had done for him! 

 

Heart's body cried in pain as he ran and ran farther into the city, away from that man. His paws ached and he could feel his blood seeping through his toes as he ran, not wishing to stop despite his body's protests. Was the man chasing after him? He couldn't tell, he couldn't stop.

 

He just had to leave.

 

He needed to leave.

 

But where would he go? Back into the alleys? He'll die if he goes back...he'll die if he keeps going. What should he do? Heart didn't know what to do.

 

What should I do? Where should I go? I don't know what to do! Please! Please tell me what I need to do, Mad Rat! Tell me what I need to do! I know I need to live but what if fate is coming for me? What if I'm not meant to live? I can't go back to that human, but I have nowhere else to go. I'm starving, I'm cold, and I think I'm dying...

 

Heart kept running, dodging all the humans walking by as he kept on running. Blood trailed behind him as he kept on going, ignoring his aching body's cries for him to stop. Against his blurry vision, Heart could swear he sees a familiar, gray rat running ahead of him.

 

"W-wait! Mad Rat, wait! Please!" Heart cried out, focusing all his remaining adrenaline on making it towards the rat. The rodent showed no signs of slowing down and didn't even acknowledge the feline chasing after him as he ran farther and farther away.

 

"Please, wait! Mad Rat! Help me! I don't know what I should do! I don't know where to go! I-I'm scared!" the cat shouted, confused people watched this strange cat run past them and cry out to something not even there.

 

Heart soon tripped and fell once more, and with his energy once again leaving him, he watched as the vision of his beloved friend ran away into the snowy fog. Heart struggled to get back up, yet his body was finally at it's limit and he could move no more. All he could do was cry.

 

" please....Mad Rat....help me...I....I need you.... "

 

Soon the cat's vision became blanketed in cold darkness as everything faded away.




Heart awoke with a jolt, darting his eyes around in panic as he found himself not outside in the snow, but in a cold, steel crate. The cat clenched his paws tightly and started scrambling at the bars keeping him locked in.

 

"Hello?! Please, let me out! Let me out! I don't want to be back here, I have to get out-"

 

"Hey, hey relax bud."

 

Heart was taken aback by a sudden, gruff voice sounding from his left. The cat looked out through the bars and took a good look at his surroundings.

 

It was certainly a medical room, that was for sure. But it was much...brighter? A lot more white and way more equipment littered the area as the sounds of humming lights and devices filled the room. Handfuls of cat, dog and other animal sounds echoed from a different room all together.

 

This wasn't the same lab.

 

So then...where...?

 

"W-who are you? Who's there? Where am I?" Heart asked, looking around the sides of his cage as he attempted to locate the source of the voice. He was greeted by a dark brown paw waving in front of the orange feline's face, white tipped paws and pink toes waving up and down.

 

"Over here, bud." The voice responded. "Don't worry, I'm just a fellow feline hanging out in this vet with ya."

 

"V...vet?" Heart asked, puzzled.

 

"Ye. You never been to a vet before, bud? I'd believe it actually...seems like you're a stray of sorts." The voice explained.

 

Heart looked down at his paws. Had he been to a vet before? He wasn't entirely sure but he vaguely recalled being sent to a similar, bright place when he was younger. Right...that's when he lost his claws.

 

"I suppose I am...who are you anyways? And...what happened to me?" Heart questioned, attempting to ease himself against the cold steel of the cage.

 

"Oh, I call myself Buck. My humans call me something else though, but it sounds similar to buck so I don't mind. Anyways, I dunno what exactly happened you ya, but I did see some kid and her parents bring you in. She looked real upset and those nurse people seemed worried, too." Buck explained.

 

A kid? Did the little girl chase after him?

 

"Anyway, you looked like a mess. Covered in snow n' dirt...bloody paws. Hell, you looked as thin as a stick! They stuck a bunch of needles n' stuff into ya, something bout' "new-tree-ants" or something like that."

 

Heart simply nodded at the voice, despite being unable to see the cat speaking to him. He looked down and noticed some kind of decorated cast on his arm. Was that related to the needles Buck mentioned?

 

"So...I'm a curious sort, y'know? What's your story? You definitely don't belong to the folks who brought you in." Buck asked, sticking his paw out in front of Heart's cage once again.

 

The cat couldn't help but muster a smile. "Well...that's kind of a long and sort of complicated story..."

 

So he told Buck everything. About his early life, about losing his claws, how everyone didn't want him and how he ended up in a lab. About...how he became Mad Rat's heart...and the day long adventure they had. He told him about the fake Rat God and how Mad Rat overcame her and took her down.

 

He told him about Mad Rat rewinding time...and letting him live. About his friend's final hours and how he's been dealing with it so far...

 

Heart sighed. Even talking about Mad Rat to someone else only made him miss the rodent more. After he was finished, Buck only chuckled to himself, not in disbelief but in a more 'wow that actually happened to you' kind of way.

 

"Damn, you're a cat with one eventful life, huh?" Buck laughed.

 

"I guess so...though my life's as eventful as any other stray now..." Heart sighed. Buck waved his paw in front of his cage and this time, Heart reached out to it. "What about you, Buck? What's your story?"

 

"Well hell, I don't think I can beat yours in all honestly. I was just born a stray, had a nice stray life and eventually, some folks picked me up, took me home and now I'm living the good old, comfortable life any cat would want." Buck explained, pride filling his words.

 

"Then...why are you in here?" Heart asked.

 

"Ah, that. Just some liver issues is all. Had em' since my street days. It's nothing too bad, just causes some extra complications."

 

"Are...are you dying?"

 

"Psh, nah, not really. It's nothing fatal, but maybe I'll lose a year or two of my life." Buck said.

 

"Ah..." Heart tucked his paws under his body, looking out through the bars of his crate. Despite his health problems, Buck sounded really happy. Heart couldn't help but be reminded of his friend...despite his pain, Mad Rat kept a smile on whenever he could, shining those pointed teeth in pride. The orange feline missed his smile so much...

 

"I understand your concern, bud...seeing as where you came from and all...but I'll be fine. I'm happy and that's all that should matter. And I'm sure you'll be happy soon, too! Those people that brought you in seemed interested in keeping ya, seeing as you're a stray and all." Buck explained. Heart could hear his smile through the old cat's voice.

 

"You had it rough, I can tell. But you holding on despite it all is gonna pay off soon, I promise ya. Take it from an old, fellow street cat next door."

 

Heart smiled, tears burning his eyes as he laid his head down. Maybe Buck was right. Maybe his life will finally change for the better, after all the heartache he's been through, the things and people he's lost, the homes he's been kicked out of...Maybe finally...finally...he'll have a place to call home.

 

"Thank you, Buck." Heart said.

 

"Anytime bud. I dunno how long they're gonna keep ya here, but I'll make sure you won't be alone until then, okay?" Buck promised, once again holding his paw out in front of Heart's cage.

 

Heart gratefully stuck his paw out and touched Buck's paw in response. Despite everything, he was thankful the girl had saved him like he did for her back then. He was thankful Buck was next to him, listening to every word the feline had to say, no matter how absurd it must've sounded.

 

For the first time in ages, Heart felt like something would actually go well for him.




Just as Buck had said, the little girl and her family came back for Heart. It had been a few weeks since he was brought in and now that he was basically at full health, the girl returned to the vet to pick him up and take Heart home.

 

Looking out from his new crate, Heart looked around the cages he was originally placed in, seeing all the other cats and dogs looking out and shouting at the humans filling the room around them.

 

From his old spot, Heart looked beside it and saw Buck smiling and waving his paws at the orange cat. The old cat was covered in scars and had one over his missing eye and both ears were notched from previous fights in the streets.

 

Heart smiled and waved back at Buck through his crate bars, saying goodbye to the old, tabby cat as Heart was soon picked up and taken outside of the vet.

 

The cat didn't know what to expect at the little girl's home, let alone that she lived in one of the apartment buildings Mad Rat had climbed and jumped around on back then. The place was surprisingly spacious and the area had already been prepared to house a cat, from what Heart could recognize anyways.

 

Cat towers, bells and toys, food bowls and a warm, comfortable bed all set up to greet the feline; the little girl happily bounced over and grabbed some of the toys and handed them to Heart. The cat couldn't help but smile at the girl and toss the balls and trinkets around as she laughed and clapped her hands together.

 

They played for the entire day and finally night had fallen and the girl had grown tired. Heart followed her to her bright pink room, laying himself beside her bed as she got into her pajamas and turned the lights down, her mother tucking her in and wishing her goodnight. Heart watched the woman leave the room and shut the door behind her, leaving the room in darkness save for a beautiful night light decorating the ceiling and walls in stars and hearts and many other shapes.

 

Before Heart could allow sleep to take him once more, he heard the little girl call for the cat. Curious, Heart jumped up onto the bed and walked over to the girl.

 

"What's the matter?" He asked, knowing full well she could not understand him. The girl simply smiled and patted onto a spot next to her on the bed. Heart looked at the spot and then her.

 

"Oh, I see. You want me to sleep up here with you." Heart smiled as he walked over and curled himself onto the spot, the little girl giggled and tucked herself into her pillow, cuddling her plush bear close as she pulled her blanket over her shoulders.

 

Heart can't remember the last time he had felt this comfortable in his life. For the first time in his life, he wasn't afraid of tomorrow. He was safe, he was happy. He was alive.

 

He was alive and that's all that mattered right now.

 

For Mad Rat, he'll live. For Buck, he'll be happy. For the little girl, he'll be her companion until he dies.

 

Finally...Heart feels that he has gained a purpose. A reason to keep living.

 

He wasn't afraid anymore.