Author: Chris Cook
From the hedgerow outside the mail sorting building, four furry heads emerged - two cats, one dog, and one rat sitting on top of the dog's head. In unison they looked one way, then the other, then fixed on the closed door at the building's side, and the grille next to it.
"He said he'd scout ahead" Amy complained, "so where is he?"
"Here," Angel said from his hiding place in a bush directly behind her, making everyone jump.
"Dammit Angel," Willow snapped, "don't do that!"
"It's my idiom," Angel protested quietly.
"Idiot," Amy muttered.
"Did you get a look inside?" Xander asked.
"Yeah," Angel nodded, making his way awkwardly forward on his hind legs and wingtips, "they're in there, asleep for the most part - a couple of sentries, nothing more. There's one rat alone in a kind of private nest, I'm guessing that's Spike. The others are around him. That mouse is up on his platform, with a rat asleep beside him. No-one saw me."
"And Miss Kitty?" Tara asked with a worried frown.
"Still on top of the stack of crates," Angel replied. "She looks okay. Frightened, but she's not hurt."
"Alright," Willow said, "we stick with the plan. Xander, you're with us. Angel, take Amy. Wait for Xander to make his entrance, then get Dalton."
"I do this under protest," Amy reminded everyone, as Angel lurched forward and gripped her shoulders in his feet. "This is not my idea of a good- eep!"
The two cats and one dog watched as Angel took off, beating his wings furiously to get enough height to glide properly, with the struggling rat held securely beneath him.
"That doesn't look comfortable," Xander observed.
"Come on," Willow said, flattening her ears and starting forward, "every second counts now."
The trio scampered quickly across the open ground, arriving unseen at the shaft with the open grille in it. Xander poked his head inquisitively inside.
"Out," Willow ordered with a grin, "you won't fit doofus. Wait here, we'll open the door for you."
"Okay," the dog nodded, flopping down to the ground. Tara gave him a grateful smile, then followed Willow into the shaft.
"Rats," she heard Willow mutter.
"Huh? Oh- no... the darn grille's stuck," Willow explained sheepishly, "must've been when all this idiot rats slammed into it, it's wedged shut. Here, give me a paw with this." Together the two cats braced their foreheads against the grille and pushed.
"That's better," Willow grinned, as the grille gave way and swung open. "Okay, now... hmm..." she trailed off purring, as Tara leaned up and licked down the fur on her forehead that had been slightly mussed up.
"Thanks," she murmured warmly as Tara finished. "Oh, hey, my turn!"
"You don't have to," Tara protested, nevertheless ducking her head to give Willow easy access to her fur.
"Neither did you," Willow mumbled between licks, "that's what friends are for. There, all beautiful again." Tara ducked her head further, bashfully, as Willow sat back to admire her work.
"Um, we should..." she said hesitantly, nodding towards the far end of the shaft.
"Hm? Oh, yeah," Willow nodded, leading the way. She paused at the end of it, cautiously peering out into the corridor beyond.
"Looks clear," she whispered. "Mind you, it looked clear last time, too..."
"Think positive," Tara suggested from beside her.
"Yeah," Willow said, twitching her whiskers with resolve, "thinking positive. Positive thoughts. Okay, let's do this." Quickly she slunk out of the shaft and along the side wall, reaching the alcove with the door, beyond which Xander was presumably waiting.
"How do you open these?" Tara asked.
"You don't open doors at home?" Willow asked, surprised.
"No," Tara admitted, "they have these knob things, I can never get a grip on them to turn them like my people do. They mostly leave them open for me anyway."
"Ah, that kind," Willow nodded, "they're tricky at the best of times. Luckily this," she smiled up at the door handle, "is one of the kind that's easy to work with. All you have to do it grab a hold of that bar thingy, and pull it down. Watch and learn." She jumped nimbly up, got both forepaws over the latch, and hung there for a moment in embarrassed silence.
"Of course," she admitted from her awkward position, "some of them need a bit more pulling than others... would you mind?"
"Sure," Tara said, trying to keep her whiskers straight. Balancing on her hind legs she got her forepaws around Willow, hugged her tightly, and began taking her weight off her back paws, adding it to Willow's on the stubborn door handle.
"I promise this isn't just an excuse to get another snuggle out of you," Willow said with a nervous purr, as the latch began to turn. All of a sudden it flipped down, leaving Willow and Tara to fall backwards in a feline heap as the door gently swung inward.
"I liked the other kind of snuggle better," Tara grumbled from beneath Willow.
"Yeah, me too," Willow groaned, getting to her paws and helping Tara up. They looked up to see Xander's head poking around the door.
"What're you guys doing?" he asked.
"Nothing," both cats said at once. They glanced at each other, and shared an embarrassed smile.
"Come on," Willow said to Xander, "time to be a big loud dog."
Some time later, while attempting to relate the confused events of the next several minutes, Amy summed it up thusly:
T minus zero: Heroic if reluctant rat and broody bat observe events from open window high on the east wall. Excitable dog enters mail room via main door, barking like a maniac. Various slumbering rats have minor heart attacks.
T plus five seconds: Broody bat takes a dive off the windowsill, taking heroic rat with him, leading to nightmares which will likely last the rest of her life. In a desperate attempt to fix her sight on something other than the floor approaching at great speed, rat notices pair of stubborn cats slinking in via main door, unseen by rats who are running around any old how, uncertain whether to chase excitable dog or be chased by it - many attempting to do both at once.
T plus five seconds and about a dozen very panicked rat heartbeats: Drama queen bat lifts out of dive with half a whisker to spare, carrying swearing rat with him over low-lying crates and so forth. Quick glance confirms that Spike and his rats remain ignorant of the aerial component of our insane plan.
T plus eight seconds, or thereabouts: Rotten bat drops heroic rat on Dalton's platform quite unceremoniously. It is small consolation to this rat's bruised backside that this allows said bat to perform a flying head-butt on Dalton's assistant, knocking him off the platform.
T plus nine seconds: Excitable dog herds rats away from target kitten's perch atop stack of crates, allowing stubborn cats to get close enough to reach kitten once she is lowered from said perch.
T plus ten seconds: Rat and bat fulfil their part of the plan by demanding, in no uncertain terms, that Dalton - currently cowering among various boxes of bits and pieces and random miscellany that constitute his home - put himself to work carefully lowering target kitten from her perch, as planned.
T plus eleven seconds: Things start going wrong.
"Make that pulley thing move!" Amy demanded fiercely of the mouse cowering in front of her. "Get the kitten down safely, or we break your scrawny little neck!"
"A little over-enthusiastic, aren't you?" Angel wondered quietly. Dalton scrabbled among the overturned heap of small boxes he had been sleeping among. In the background Xander's barking echoed around the large room, preceded by and pursued by the squeaking of Spike's rat gang, engaged in a panicked mix of chase and escape.
"This mouse and I have history," Amy glared, advancing on Dalton, "I do not like this mouse."
"I don't like you either, rat!" Dalton squeaked angrily, pulling from the overturned heap a strange contraption of twisted paper clips and elastic bands. The end of it caught Amy on the side of her head, sending her sprawling back, while Dalton aimed the sharpened metal rod at the thing's end at Angel.
"Whoops," the bat said quickly, dropping backwards off the back of the platform, just in time as Dalton released the elastic bands, sending the skewer of metal flying.
"Come back here!" the mouse squeaked shrilly, struggling to wedge another skewer into the makeshift weapon and pull the thick elastic back at the same time. Angel swooped back into view, darting in and out of the surrounding crates. Flying low near the floor, out of Dalton's view, he found himself racing towards Xander, stampeding back towards him with several rats scrambling madly in front of him, and many more in pursuit behind.
"Oh, hey Angel," he said jovially between barks. Angel let out a desperate squawk and beat his wings, shooting upwards just before he would have collided with the charging dog.
"There you are!" Dalton grinned in triumph, taking aim at the startled bat as it shot upwards out of the crates.
"Huh?" The mouse turned in confusion to meet Amy's clenched paw coming the other way. His weapon flew out of his paws as he tipped backwards over the edge of the platform, plummeting down to land, with a pained squeak, in a box moving along one of the conveyor belts below.
"Think your way out of that," Amy smiled as she watched the sorting machine neatly close Dalton's box and stamp 'Airmail' on its top. Grinning she strutted back to the other side of the platform, to find Willow and Tara in position by Miss Kitty's stack of crates, glancing nervously back at her.
"Amy!" Willow hissed, seeing her appear, "get Dalton to move the chain now!"
"Oh," Amy said, her face falling, "right... um..." She took a step back and jumped up onto the control panel, looking hopefully at the bewildering array of knobs, dials, switches and buttons.
"Can't be that difficult," she said after a thoughtful pause, "if humans can work it... lemme see here..."
Spike vaulted to the top of a crate and glared down at his rats, who were milling around in confusion, mostly hiding from the rampaging canine.
"Stop running!" he squeaked at the top of his voice. "Haven't I taught you anything?! Get out of sight, the people will be here any minute! They'll get rid of the damned dog! Now let's- woah!" he squeaked as the crate beneath him suddenly lurched back on its conveyor belt, dumping him unceremoniously on the floor.
"Dalton, how many times have I told you-" he grumbled, before a groaning sound alerted him and he flipped over onto his back, staring up. The conveyor belt abruptly reversed direction, and Spike barely had time to scramble away before the crate he had been on top of seconds earlier crashed into the floor, splintering and sending foam packaging everywhere.
"Boss!" one of the rats shrieked in panic, as Xander careened by, scattering several others, while two nearby belts suddenly started running towards each other, sending boxes crashing together, tipping them onto the floor.
"Dalton!" Spike yelled, craning his neck to see over the confusion. For a moment he got a glimpse of a panicked-looking rat atop Dalton's platform.
"You!" he squeaked. "What are you doing?! Get down from there!" The rat looked up at him, startled, then ducked out of sight.
"Hey, you're not one of my rats!" Spike snarled. "You, and you," he grabbed two sprawled rats by the scruffs of their necks and hauled them to their paws, "come with me! Move!"
Amy hurled herself against a button, managing to press it at the expense of a bruised head.
"Ow... oops," she added, looking up to see the result of her effort, a packing machine picking up boxes from a belt and dropping them into an increasing pile on the floor. Sirens were wailing, red lights flashing - it seemed everything in the sorting room except the chain and pulley leading to Miss Kitty was in chaotic motion.
Taking a moment to survey the scene, Amy cringed as a wayward cardboard box sailed across the room and landed squarely on Xander's head. The dog continued to charge around blindly, barking madly, scattering the rats too panicked or stupid to hide as he crashed through stacks of boxes and piles of neatly-arranged letters.
Nearer by Willow and Tara were slinking from cover to cover, trying to stay out of sight as the dog and rats rampaged back and forth. Tara had her eyes fixed on Miss Kitty, high stop her crates, meowing to her as loud as she dared over the noise of the sorting machines going haywire. Willow meanwhile was glaring up at the platform, alternately ducking at any particularly loud crashes, and demanding Amy stop fooling around and get Miss Kitty down.
Which meant neither of them were looking behind them, where Amy, from her high vantage point, could see-
"Spike! Willow, look out!"
"Wha?" Willow spun around just in time to see Spike emerge from between two crates, aiming Dalton's improvised crossbow at her. Two more rats appeared behind them, cutting off their avenue of escape.
"Stay down!" Willow hissed, instantly moving in front of Tara, shielding her from the jagged point of Spike's weapon.
"Well well," the rat gloated, "two little kitties... all this is your doing? It's Willow, isn't it? I've heard of you, street cat."
"Yeah? Well I've heard of you, gutter rat," Willow shot back in a show of bravado as she tried to work out what to do. Behind her, Tara glared at the two rats facing her, grateful for once that her tail had fuzzed up enormously. The rats seemed unmoved by her display, but held off their advance.
"Careful," Spike warned, raising the weapon to his shoulder, "you don't want to hurt my feelings."
"Willow be careful!" Amy squeaked from above. "That thing's dangerous! Xander!" There was a distant bark, and the sound of the dog crashing blindly through another stack of boxes.
"Quiet you!" Spike snarled, swinging the weapon to bear on her, "I may not be a sodding super-mouse but I can aim this thing well enough to pick you off, ratling! Hey!" He swung back to face Willow. "No smart ideas... not that I'd expect any from a cat in any case."
"We're not leaving without the kitten," Willow hissed.
"You're not leaving at all," Spike grinned savagely. "So, which one gets skewered and which one gets taken down by rats? I'll let you two decide."
"Stay behind me," Willow hissed to Tara.
"Willow," Tara meowed sadly, "I-I'm sorry I got you into this..."
"I'm sorry I got you into this," Willow whispered, her voice soft and kind, despite the icy glare she was maintaining in Spike's direction. "I really screwed it up."
"You were great," Tara whispered back, "so brave..."
"When he... when it happens, you run," Willow insisted.
"I won't leave you!" Tara protested.
"No! I won't leave you," Tara meowed firmly.
"Aww, how touching," Spike sneered, "well, sorry to break up this sappy moment, but it's time for you two to sniff your butts goodbye."
"I'm sorry Tara," Willow meowed.
"Don't be," Tara replied, "I love you."
"You... you huh?" Willow's brows furrowed in surprise.
"I do," Tara said simply.
"I... I-I love you too, Tar-"
"MISS KITTY FANTASTICO BANZAI!!!"
Legs whirring, Miss Kitty leapt into the air, wrapping all four paws around the chain to the pulley and hook. This in turn jerked the heavy pulley off the top of the stack of crates, dropping it, and the kitten hanging on grimly above it, until it reached the full extent of the chain and swung.
Spike had just enough time to say "What the bleedin-" before the pulley slammed into him, propelling him up into the air, and with a painful crash through one of the sorting room's high windows. In the moment of stunned silence that followed, there was a distant splash from the river outside.
The two remaining rats slowly lowered their gazes from the broken window high above to the two cats in front of them. Tara turned back to them, stared wide-eyed for a moment, then fuzzed her tail, arched her back and bared her fangs.
"Next!" she hissed fiercely, sending the two rats scattering like mice, clambering and tripping over each other in their hurry to get away. Tara let out a sigh of relief and turned back to find Willow staring at her in surprise.
"What?" she asked.
"That was cool," Willow grinned, her meow filled with admiration.
Their attention was drawn back to the swinging pulley as it passed by again, still with Miss Kitty clinging to it.
"Jump," Tara called out to her as she swung back up, "when you pass by, jump! I'll catch you."
"'Kay," Miss Kitty's distant meow echoed back, as her chain reached the top of its backswing and started down again.
Tara braced herself, with Willow watching worriedly, and reared up onto her hind legs as the chain swung down and Miss Kitty let go, propelling herself away from it, towards Tara. Tara caught the kitten on her chest and wrapped her forepaws protectively around her as they both fell over backwards, Willow in turn catching Tara, softening her fall. All three ended up in a furry heap on the floor.
"Tara!" Miss Kitty meowed excitedly, "you rescued me!" She began emitting roaring purrs, nuzzling warmly into Tara's fur.
"I think you just rescued me," Tara purred in reply, getting to her feet and giving Miss Kitty affectionate licks on her forehead as she continued to nuzzle her.
"Can we go home now?" Miss Kitty asked, purring louder from Tara's attention.
"Yes," Tara smiled, "we can go home now."
Willow stood back a little, watching the cat and kitten with a melancholy smile.