Author: Chris Cook
The two cats and Amy paused to catch their breath once they reached the shelter of the bushes. Tara scowled back at the mail building, while Willow turned and fixed Amy with a glare.
"Okay," she said, "talk."
"Will?" Amy squeaked nervously.
"You and that mouse know each other," Willow pointed out, "and you know what this 'mascot' business is about. I'll grant you that the whole 'don't go in there' routine you pulled before was justified, but I want some explanations, now. And don't leave anything out."
"I wouldn't, Will!" Amy protested. Willow glared levelly. "Okay, look," the rat complained, "it's not easy, okay? I'm a rat, see, sneaky is in the bones. It's what I do, it's how rats have stayed alive for as long as there's been rats. Going around admitting to everything you know, that's like saying you're tired of being a rat and ready to give it a try being someone else's dinner..."
"Amy!" snapped Willow, then she sighed and her expression softened. "Look... I know, okay? But this is serious, Tara's kitten is in there, and we almost got jumped just now. I know you like to keep what you know to yourself, but I have to ask this. You can trust me, Amy."
"Is there another way in?" Tara asked quietly.
"We're not going back in there just yet," Willow cautioned.
"We have to!" Tara insisted.
"Not yet," Willow implored her. "I don't know what you've heard about rats, but they can fight. Normally a rat runs from a cat, it's safer, but if you corner a rat, give it no other choice but to fight, it will, and they're nasty. They've got sharp teeth, they're quick as lightning, and they know where to bite so it'll kill."
"Even against a cat?" Tara asked, frowning.
"Against a street cat," Willow said, "she might get a nasty scratch, if the rat's good, or lucky. But you're not a street cat-" She laid her tail down, conciliatory, as Tara bristled. "No, wait, please... I'm not trying to put you down, okay? Believe me, I wouldn't, but it's the truth. Have you ever fought anything that wasn't made of string and had a bell attached?"
"...no," Tara admitted.
"It's okay," Willow meowed quietly, touching her head to Tara's, "don't be ashamed... but you see? You're a cat, so a rat would be scared of you, but if he had to fight, he could really hurt you. And that's one rat - a whole group, a smart cat scares them, makes them run off and scatter so she can get them one on one."
"Except..." Tara began.
"I know," Willow nodded, "these rats don't scare, and that makes them dangerous, Tara. I need you to understand that, otherwise you'll get hurt and I don't want that. I don't. Okay?"
"We have to save Miss Kitty," Tara said quietly.
"We will," Willow assured her, "I promise. Amy?" The rat looked up, having crouched low to the ground inconspicuously while the two cats were talking.
"First things first," Willow said, crouching to look her in the eye, "you said Miss Kitty's safe, because of this mascot thing. Is that true?"
"I wouldn't lie to you, Will," Amy protested, looking hurt.
"Sorry," Willow said, dipping her tail in acknowledgement. "How come she's safe? What's a mascot?"
"This Spike," Amy explained, "they say he sometimes keeps small cats captive, see? Sort of like, like showing off, so the other rats know what he can do. It's like a symbol, show's he's not afraid of cats."
"So he's not afraid of a kitten," Willow said darkly, "how brave of him."
"Yeah," Amy shrugged morosely, "but you know rats, to most rats a cat is a cat, no matter what. You run from cats. Not you, Will, you understand, but that's just me, on account of I know you and all. But other rats, no. If you hear Spike's keeping a cat, you - if you're a rat - you don't tend to think, well, is it a big nasty cat or a little harmless cat, or any of that. You think, he's got a cat, he must be a big rat. That's how it is with rats."
"So they won't hurt Miss Kitty?" Tara asked sceptically.
"No," Amy shook her head vehemently, "no, not..." she paused, and cringed a little, "not for a while..."
"Amy..." Willow growled dangerously.
"Spike... he had a mascot before, a little tom, they say... he got bored... and then, he... well, he didn't have a mascot anymore..." Willow grimaced, and Tara's tail fluffed up in fright.
"But they were going to kill you!" Amy added quickly. "I had to get you out of there, see? You-"
"So you decided it was okay to run away and leave Miss Kitty there," Willow glared, sitting up to her full height.
"You wouldn't have helped her kitten anyway," Amy said defiantly, holding the end of her tail in her forepaws nervously, "you wouldn't... you know that Will, not against those rats. And we've got time, see? This kitten, she's only been in there what, a day? Two?"
"She got lost this morning," Tara said forlornly.
"Right, see, I hadn't heard anything about Spike having a new mascot, so I knew she couldn't have been there long!" Amy insisted, twitching her nose. "And Spike won't get bored like he did before for a while, see? We've got time! We can... whatever you do, I don't know. Plan, and... and get more cats, or stuff..." She trailed off, and looked up nervously at Willow.
"I guess..." Willow said, after a long pause, "I guess you're right. You're sure Miss Kitty isn't in any danger yet?"
"Promise, Will, promise," Amy nodded quickly. Willow seemed to relax, and her tail swished over to touch Tara's, soothing her fears.
"Okay," Willow nodded, "we'll 'plan and stuff'... what about the mouse?"
"Dalton?" Amy squeaked. "I'm not sure... he doesn't like me, from way back."
"You know him," Willow supplied.
"I, kind of," Amy said, "kind of, we didn't get on... he kind of wanted to hang around me a bit, so's I'd keep the other mice away from him, but he was bad business, I could tell..."
"Uh-huh," Willow said without inflection.
"Will," Amy protested, "you know me, I don't try to make enemies, I've got enough just from being a rat without going around getting more... but trust me, this was one mouse I didn't want hanging around me. He was small and weak, but I tell you Will, he was nasty, if I'd hung around with him, and it'd gotten around that he had a rat looking out for him, he'd have been beating up on the other mice in no time."
"Yeah," Willow said, "yeah, I believe that."
"There's mice at home," Tara said, "not like him... just a few, but they know not to try to sneak into the house or the yard. They're happy being left alone."
"Most mice are," Willow nodded, then turned back to Amy, "but Dalton's different, isn't he? He's worth something to Spike, otherwise those other rats wouldn't let him treat them like that."
"I d-don't know for sure," Amy stammered, "but... back when I ran into him, he was different. He knew stuff, more than a mouse normally does - you know mice, they're not like rats, they don't much care why things are the way they are. Know where to find food, know where to sleep, know where's dangerous to go, that's all your average mouse really thinks about, but Dalton's different, he said... it sounds silly, but he said he was a human mouse. He said one day he'd be in charge of the world, like humans are."
Willow and Tara exchanged an amazed look.
"I know!" Amy protested. "But that's what he used to say... like, all that made people people is that they know stuff. He figured if he knew enough, he'd be like them... a-and... well, you saw him..." Willow thought a moment, then nodded.
"He read human," she said flatly, "and none of the rats dared speak up against him. Normally, I wouldn't say any rat would take orders from a mouse like that."
"No way Will," Amy agreed, "not even me. I may be a coward, but I'm still a rat."
"I've never heard of anyone who can read human," Tara piped up.
"Me neither," Willow said. "Until now, I'd have said it was impossible, just like people can't read scent like we can... but he read my collar tag, and yours," she glanced at Tara's collar, then smiled. "I guess they confirms it: people really do put our names on our tags. I've always wondered." She twitched her whiskers, then grew serious again.
"So Dalton's a very smart mouse, and he's worth enough to Spike that no-one else dares take a chunk out of him no matter how he behaves towards them." She paused, then flattened her ears in thought. "I don't know how just yet, but that might be useful. To get Miss Kitty back we have to take on Spike's gang. The more we know, the better our chances - that's one thing I think Dalton had right," she said to Amy, "the more you know, the better off you are."
"You've got a plan, Will?" Amy asked eagerly, then paused, and looked worried. "Do I have to do something dangerous?"
"No, but you do have to do something you won't like," Willow said with a slight grin. "Let's say, I'm starting to get a plan. But I need to know what we're up against. I need to know what's inside that place - how many rats, where they are, where they go, where they've got Miss Kitty."
"You don't want me to sneak in there?!" Amy squeaked in panic.
"No," Willow reassured her, "no, not you... what time is it?"
"Dark soon," Amy said, glancing at the sky. Tara looked on curiously, wondering what Willow had in mind.
"Okay," Willow nodded, "Tara, you're probably hungry, right?"
"I... yes," Tara said, "but I can wait-"
"We can't go storming in there just yet," Willow smiled, "so we might as well get something to eat. I know a place that'll do. Amy, I want you to go to the park, make sure you get there before dusk."
"Okay Will," Amy nodded quickly, "what do you- hey, wait... you don't want me to find him, do you?"
"Sorry," Willow smiled quirkily, "yeah."
"Aw, Will," Amy complained, "he scares the heck out of me!"
"Who?" Tara asked.
"A friend of mine," Willow explained, "Angel."
"A bat," Amy clarified, shivering at the word. "He drinks blood."
"He does not!" Willow frowned. "How many times do I have to tell you, 'vampire bat' is just a human expression. He eats... berries, and stuff."
"Yeah, 'stuff', as in 'rats'," Amy grumbled.
"Look, I know he likes the whole creature-of-the-night image, and the dark, mysterious brooding and all that, but he will not eat you. Okay? Find him, tell him what's going on, and tell him I'm calling in the favour he owes me. Tonight, I want him at one of those windows up there," she glanced at the top of the mail building, "watching everything those rats do in there. We'll meet back at the park at dawn, by the big oak with the low branches, and we'll figure out what our plan will be. Then we'll get Miss Kitty back. Okay?" she looked at Tara.
"Thank you," Tara meowed quietly.