Author: Chris Cook
"Hey," Willow prodded Tara gently with her nose. After several stretches and various twitches of her tail, during which she began purring as Willow repeatedly prodded her, Tara opened her eyes.
"Hmm?" she asked.
"Wake up purr-ball," Willow grinned.
"'S still dark," Tara frowned, getting to her feet and arching her back until her front and back paws touched.
"Nice stretch," Willow complimented, "yeah, but we have to get to the park so we can plan our daring rescue." Tara nodded, then noticed Willow's fur was a little ruffled between her ears.
"What?" Willow asked, seeing Tara glance at the top of her head. "Oh... see, that's what I get for cuddling up all night, I have morning fur." She raised a paw to lick and smooth herself down, but Tara leaned in before she could begin.
"Here," she offered, gently licking down Willow's fur. Willow returned her paw to the ground with a thud, steadying herself as she began to purr thunderously.
"Thanks," she managed when Tara finished and stepped back, grinning shyly and sliding her tail demurely around her forepaws as she sat.
"Don't mention it," Tara replied quietly. "Um, Willow? Th-thanks for... for sleeping with me... you know, curled up there. I felt a lot better with you, um, not so - not so lonely."
"My pleasure," Willow said with a gentle smile, while tilting her head to one side as if trying to work something out. She then got up and swished her tail extravagantly. "Let's go get Miss Kitty, huh? We'll get your family back together."
"Let's," Tara agreed, swallowing what she had been about to say. 'Right,' she thought to herself, following Willow through the bushes, 'it'll be just like it was before. My home, my people, Miss Kitty... it's a good life.' She shook her head, glancing now and then towards Willow to make sure she hadn't noticed her upset. 'It's a good life,' she told herself again, 'even if it doesn't have Willow in it...'
For her part, Willow concentrated on the task at hand, trying to push thoughts of the future out of her mind. 'I won't let you be lonely,' she promised Tara silently, 'I'll get Miss Kitty back for you... and you and she can go home together. And I'll- I'll manage. I always have. Right? Right.'
The sky was just brightening with the dawn when the two cats reached the stone wall marking the edge of the park. Willow showed Tara where to hop over it, and led her through the dense undergrowth.
"I've been thinking," she said as they neared the open grassy expanse on the other side.
"Yes?" Tara said quickly.
"We're going to need help with this," Willow explained. "With the rats, I mean."
"Oh," Tara nodded, "yes... do you-"
"Know someone?" Willow asked. "Uh-huh, if he's around... it's the beginning of one of their not-working days, he's usually around here somewhere early on, his people bring him out here while their young play games with balls..."
"A friend of yours?" Tara asked.
"Xander," Willow said, "yeah, a friend - met him a year ago, he's pretty good. Not exactly subtle, but... ah, you'll see. Oh, hi Natalie," Willow said, spotting an insect on a branch. "Seen Xander this morning?" The preying mantis looked at her quizzically.
"Xan-der?" Willow asked slowly. The mantis turned her head and pointed across the grass with one tapering claw.
"Okay, thanks," Willow said. "Nice girl," she added to Tara as they walked along one of the park's gravel paths, "not too bright, but that's insects for you - good memory though. If Xander's over here he's probably romping around in the bushes somewhere, so he should be easy enough to find."
"Xander's a cat?" Tara asked.
"Hmm? Oh, no," Willow said, "no, he's-"
"ARF-ARF-ARF-ARF-ARF!" Tara ducked and scrambled back as a huge shape burst out of the bushes and bellowed at Willow from point blank range.
"Hi Xander," she said calmly.
"ARF-ARF- oh, hey Willow," the creature said, his fanged jaws suddenly turning into a broad smile, with the tip of a tongue lolling out of the corner of his mouth.
"Xander, this is- Tara? Oh..." Willow turned to see Tara several feet away, claws planted in the ground, tail fuzzed up to epic proportions.
"Xander!" she scolded the creature.
"Sorry," Xander dipped his head, "you know how it is, see cat, bark..."
"Ya big goof," Willow muttered. "Tara, it's okay, he's harmless, he's a friend... Tara?" She fixed Xander in place with a glare, then sauntered over to Tara and gave her a gentle nuzzle.
"H-he's enormous," she said weakly.
"Never seen a dog before?" Willow asked.
"Th-that's a dog?" Tara asked.
"That is a dog," Willow echoed. "Are you okay? He does that to everyone, it's just a dog thing... come on, tail down, I promise... Tara?"
"S-sorry," she murmured, "I-I was just... he came out of nowhere, and all that noise..."
"Hey, shh," Willow whispered soothingly, "it's alright... Xander!" she glared back at the dog.
"Sorry," he said, drooping his head down to the ground. Despite her shock, Tara couldn't help finding the gesture likeable.
"I'm okay," she said, retracting her claws and venturing a couple of paces forward.
"That's my girl," Willow said. "Xander, this is Tara."
"Hi," Xander said, still ducking apologetically.
"Well, to make up for that tactless bit of buffoonery," Willow said, "you're helping us out today."
"Yep, sure!" Xander said enthusiastically. "Um, how?"
"I'll explain everything," Willow assured him, "we're meeting Amy and Angel by the big oak. Tara, you okay?"
"I'm okay," Tara said, her shock all but forgotten. 'My girl,' she replayed Willow's words in her mind, 'I'm her girl? I'm her girl...'
"Good," Willow nodded. "Well, at least you can see what I've got in mind. It doesn't matter how confident a pack of rats are, when a gigantic dog charges at them barking his head off, they'll scatter before they have time to think."
"Sure will!" Xander proclaimed proudly. "So... what's this about rats?"
Amy and Angel were waiting as promised, the rat curled up next to one of the huge old oak tree's roots, the bat hanging from its lowest branch.
"Angel, get down here," Willow greeted him. He unfurled his wings and dropped, flipping over just in time to land on clawed feet. Amy scuttled over to Willow as Angel drew himself up to his full height, one wing held ominously across his face and chest.
"Willow," he said in a grim voice, "dangerous game you're playing."
"Yeah yeah," Willow replied, "good to see you too." Angel seemed to deflate a little, and let his wing drop.
"This is Tara?" he went on, nodding towards her as he waddled awkwardly forward, using his wings to balance.
"Tara, Angel," Willow introduced.
"From what Amy tells me, you've got courage," the bat said levelly, then dropped his voice an octave to add: "let's hope that's enough." Amy cringed behind Willow a little further.
"Angel," Willow sighed, "humans have this phrase, 'drama queen'... never mind, did you check out the mail building?"
"Yeah," he nodded. "Amy?" The rat scurried forward and used a tiny paw to scratch a plan in the dirt. The other animals clustered around to watch - Willow frowning in concentration, Tara thoughtful, Xander curious.
"Firstly," Angel said, "this is not your everyday rat gang. They're organised, sophisticated. They're led by a rat named-"
"Spike," Willow supplied.
"...yeah," Angel admitted, seemingly disappointed to be denied the chance to perform a dramatic revelation. "Yeah, Spike... he's the brawn, all the rats are afraid of him, but the brains of the operation is-"
"Dalton," Tara piped up, "the mouse."
"...yeah," Angel sighed forlornly. He squared his shoulders and pointed a wing-tip at Amy's drawing.
"This is their headquarters," he went on, "based in the room the humans keep all their mail machines in. Spike's place is here, at the centre on top of this crate. From there he has lines of sight to the whole floor - he watches everything his rats do. They're primarily here, not far from Spike. Dalton is here, this platform, on the other side of Spike. Your kitten," he said to Tara, "is here. This pile of boxes, above the main rat nest. It's to tall for a cat to climb up or down."
"How did they get her up there?" Tara wondered.
"Dalton," Angel said darkly. "He controls the machines. That's what this platform does - I saw him manipulate this panel, the way humans do. Pushing buttons, turning... things that turn... and so on. Through him, Spike can make any machine in the whole room do what he wants. One of them is a chain and pulley hanging from the ceiling, that moves back and forth. They put the kitten onto it, lift it up, drop her on top of the pile of boxes. The chain's swung out to one side of the pile - a rat can run along it. If the kitten tries, the pulley slips off the pile, and she gets dumped back on the floor. Where the rats are."
"Amy," Willow said, "could you climb down the chain to Miss Kitty?"
"Does Miss Kitty eat rats?" Amy asked nervously. Tara shook her head.
"Wouldn't work," Angel declared. "Even if she secured the pulley to the boxes somehow, the rats would see her. There's no cover up there. And they can get up to the ceiling on either side of the room - they'd corner her on the ceiling beams."
"I don't wanna be cornered up there," Amy interjected quickly.
"You can't carry a kitten, can you?" Tara asked Angel.
"Sorry," he shook his head.
"But you can carry Amy," Willow pointed out, causing Amy to do a double-take. "No, listen - you fly past, drop Amy on the boxes-"
"Drop me?" Amy squeaked.
"Carefully drop Amy," Willow amended, "the rats'll have only a few seconds to react, if she secures the pulley... somehow... could she and Miss Kitty reach the windows before the rats reach them?"
"What about Dalton?" Angel pointed out. "If we're seen he could move the pulley and chain - Amy can't carry anything strong enough to secure it against the pull of the machine."
"Okay, okay..." Willow paused, frowning in thought. "How about this: we take out Dalton. He's just one mouse, we can deal with that-"
"The rats'll protect him," Amy said grimly.
"Is this where I come in?" Xander asked. "Scaring rats, right?"
"Those rats," Amy said, "those rats specifically, not rats in general. This rat in general is quite scared enough already."
"That's a good idea," Willow said. "Xander - Angel, where's the door? The one to the front of the building? I've got a plan."
"Here," he said, reaching out with a claw to make a scratch in Amy's plan.
"Okay, Tara and I get in through the grille in the corridor," Willow said, "only this time, we open the door to the outside before we go any further. We let Xander in, he charges into the main room barking like a maniac, scares all the rats, they run away, or start chasing him, Spike being the muscle will probably join in - you can outrun a rat, can't you?"
"Yeah, sure," Xander said confidently.
"Be careful anyway. Angel, at the same time you and Amy get in through one of the top windows," Willow went on, "while all the rats are distracted, you land on Dalton's platform. Angel, you subdue him while Amy watches your back. Get him to lower Miss Kitty down using the pulley - that way we don't need to do all this sneaking around the roof. Tara and I will creep around while all the rats are busy - if Miss Kitty sees you," she added to Tara, "it'll calm her down, and we'll be able to get her out nice and quick."
"Then what?" Xander asked.
"We and Miss Kitty get out via the grille," Willow concluded, "Xander, you circle around and leave through the open door you came in through, Angel, grab Amy and take off. By the time they've figured out what's happening we'll be out of there. How's that sound?"
"I'm in," Xander said immediately, sticking out a paw.
"Me too," Tara spoke up, putting hers on top of Xander's.
"Doesn't seem like we have a lot of options," Angel muttered, reaching forward with a wingtip.
"Thanks for that resounding optimism," Amy glared at him. "Oh... dammit. Okay." She extended her small paw.
"Done," Willow said, putting her paw in. "Let's go get our kitten."