“Come with me.”
“Because your guard detail is punishment for you mouthing off to Boris. I’m not being punished. Why should I go?”
“Is a fat Russian biscuit-muncher, I know. But you’re the one that said it to his face.”
Charlie sighed and rolled onto his back. “Please?”
Harvey looked at his brother finally. “Why?”
Charlie flopped back onto his belly so they lay facing each other, noses almost touching. “Because I want to show you what we’re guarding.”
Harvey looked away, bored. “I don’t really care, C.”
“You should.” There was a scolding tone in Charlie’s voice and his brother looked at him, surprised. “You should, because we all know that guarding is temporary. After guarding comes a more final solution.”
Harvey pushed himself up to sitting and scratched an ear. “You want to do a re-run of of the damn ‘were situation? That almost got us thrown out of the Watch.”
“I was right, and you know I was.”
“I know.” He sighed. “But we’re first lifers. We get chucked out now, we’re not getting back in.”
Charlie just looked at him, eyes wide and green and guileless.
The little gully was an ice cream scoop out of the surrounding fells, protected from the wind by its high sides, basking in late afternoon sun. A little stream ran down one rocky wall, meandered its way through grassy banks, and pattered on down the hills beyond. A tabby cat sprawled long-legged on a mossy stone, eyes half-closed against the sunlight. He watched the newcomers approach without moving, two black and white cats walking shoulder to shoulder, their markings mirroring each other with discomfiting accuracy. One had a black tip on his left ear. The other had a black tip on his right. Where one had a left black sock, the other had a black right sock. And so on.
“Jeri-cho!” Left cat called, and the tabby shook his head.
“Are you ever going to get bored of that, Charlie?”
“Not in this lifetime.” He jumped up next to the tabby. “How’s it been?”
“How d’you think? Cushiest guard duty ever.” Jericho got up and stretched. “How’s it, Harvey?”
“Can’t complain.” Harvey turned to look back over the field, but he couldn’t see what it was the other cat had been guarding. There was nothing in the little gully but half a dozen overly fluffy white rabbits, grazing along the margins of the river and occasionally pausing to have fluffy bunny boxing fights, which were pretty adorable.
The tabby dropped easily from the rock to the grass. “Well, I’m off then. See ya tomorrow, Charlie.”
“See ya.” Charlie sat down on the rock as his brother joined him, and they watched Jericho amble forward a few steps, then slip into nothingness, leaving them alone with the rabbits. They sat for a little longer in comfortable silence, enjoying the late summer warmth. It was quiet up here – no human noises creeping in, no roads or houses or towns, just the whisper of wind on the moor above them and the busy drone of bees in the heather.
“So where is it?” Harvey asked finally.
“You’re looking at them.”
“Yes. We are guarding adorably fluffy little bunny rabbits while the Watch comes up with how best to deal with them. Or who the highest bidder is.”
Harvey regarded the rabbits doubtfully. “Poisonous spurs? Rabidly carnivorous? Hallucinogenic hair?”
“Nope. But they’re a pixie experiment – I guess a failed one, because you know they would’ve had big teeth and spikes otherwise.”
“This doesn’t seem right. Why get rid them if they’re not dangerous?”
Charlie gave his brother a lazy look and got up. “Because them’s the rules, H.” He led his brother down to the rabbits, who mostly ignored them – one came up and sniffed Harvey, making him recoil, then went back to nibbling the soft short grass.
“Hello?” Harvey offered, and the biggest rabbit looked up at him blandly, then scratched an ear with one heavy hind leg until it fell over.
“Yeah, they’re not very bright, either,” Charlie said. “I’ve tried communicating with them, but all I got was bunny cuddles.”
“So the pixies have bred bunnies.”
“Cute, fluffy, stupid, harmless bunnies.”
“And the Watch wants to destroy them.”
“Or sell them to someone who will. It’s the law. Pixie experimentation’s been outlawed since they created those midge-dragons and we almost lost Oban.”
“I know.” Harvey sighed, and sat down, looking up at the high arch of blue sky above them. “Well, bollocks to it. I never wanted to be a career cat anyway. You got a plan, C?”
Charlie purred and head-butted his brother. “You are the cat!”
“I’m an idiot. And a sucker for a fluffy bunny story.”
Charlie stumbled into the stuffy room, his brother fussing around him. There was blood plastering his fur, and he was favouring one front paw.
“I was attacked!” he shrieked. “Damn harpies!”
No one answered for a moment, the cats in the room looking at him warily, then a big ginger tom said, “Really?”
“Does it look like he’s joking?” Harvey snapped. “Sit down, sit down, Charlie.” He hurried his brother over to the electric fire and glared at a small she-cat until she vacated her cushion with a sigh. Charlie eased himself down, hissing in pain.
“Who’s watching the rabbits, since you’ve left your post?” the ginger cat asked. “Were you getting a wee bit bored out there? Needed a break?”
Charlie shook his head sadly. “Gone. All gone. I tried, I really did, but – they just came out of nowhere. I think I was actually knocked out for a bit.”
“You do have blood in your ear,” Harvey said. He started grooming his brother. “Good thing I came to say hi when I did.”
“Gone?” A burly grey cat demanded. “What d’you mean gone?”
“Harpies,” Charlie said weakly. “I couldn’t stop them. Not on my own.”
“Oh, hell no,” the grey cat snapped. “This is the damn ‘were thing all over again! I bet he’s shamming!” He jumped to his feet and stalked towards Charlie.
Harvey stepped over his brother, head lowered and teeth bared. “Back off, Boris. Don’t be talking the same crap again.”
“It wasn’t crap,” the grey cat snarled. “I know he did it! He got rid of that ‘were somehow! He did!”
“Not what the ruling said.” Harvey didn’t move, and underneath him Charlie huffed weakly and spat a tooth onto the floor.
“Ew,” someone said from across the room, but other than that was silence. Boris took another step forward, and Harvey started growling low in his throat.
“Stop it,” the ginger tom said, his tone flat. He had sat up while they were bickering, curling his tail over his toes. “Anna, take Boris and see what you find at the site, will you?”
A small black cat got up and stretched. “C’mon, Boris.”
“No, Jones -”
The ginger cat turned his orange eyes on Boris and waited. After a moment the grey cat huffed, and followed Anna out the door. Jones looked back at Harvey. “Go get your brother looked after,” he said. “And get rid of that tooth. It’s disgusting.”
“Got it.” Harvey nudged Charlie until he dragged himself to his feet, and they made their way slowly (punctuated with some dramatic groans) out the door and down the hall to the kitchen. A woman in a mis-buttoned cardigan and lavender slacks was unpacking catfood on the table, and she paused as they came in.
“Hello you two. What’s happening?” Charlie mewled piteously and she crouched to examine him. “Oh dear. Look at you.” She ran her hands gently over his matted fur and shook her head. “You need to stop scrapping.” She picked him up and headed upstairs, Harvey following behind. Charlie put his chin on her shoulder, looked down at his brother, and winked.
Anna prowled into the safe house, a shadow beside the bulky grey cat. “It’s legit,” she said. “Fluff and blood everywhere, poor wee things. Charlie’s lucky he got away.”
“I still think,” Boris began, and the little she-cat rounded on him, teeth bared.
“You can think all you damn well please. Everyone knows you’ve got a problem with Charlie.”
“He’s a bloody liability!”
“Are you contradicting me? Challenging me?”
He glared at her for a moment, then looked sulkily at the floor. “No.”
“That’s what I thought.” She looked back at Jones. “As I was saying. Blood and fluff everywhere. Harpy stink, too. They must’ve sniffed them out.”
“I couldn’t smell harpies,” Boris grumbled.
“That’s because you’ve got a nose like a congested eel.”
“The harpies shouldn’t have been able to sniff them out in there,” Jones said, his eyes not moving from Anna.
“Nope. But those bunny pheromones are something else – the boundary spell probably couldn’t contain it. It’s not a million miles from harpy territory.”
Jones sighed, and shrugged. “Alright. Problem solved, anyway. I wasn’t too keen on handing them to the faeries. I hate to think what they were going to do with them.”
“Can we at least agree that those brothers need keeping off any sort of responsible detail?” Boris asked. “Harvey was there this afternoon. They could have undone the boundary spell -”
“To what purpose?” Jones said wearily. “The bunnies are toast. Those two just saved us the hassle of a handover. Leave it alone, Boris, or I’ll start to think your judgement’s compromised.”
The grey cat grumbled something under his breath and trudged out of the room, tail lashing. Anna snorted. “I’ll go tell Harvey they’re in the clear.”
The two black and white cats sat like bookends to either side of a tree stump, watching the murky surface of the canal. They’d been sitting there long enough that Charlie had watched a snail traverse the tree stump, investigate an old crisp packet, cross the path and vanish. Supposedly they were watching for knuckers, because there had been reports of dogs and pets going missing around the waterways, but they both knew that really it was just keeping them out of the way of anything interesting. He supposed he should just be happy they were still in the Watch. If they’d been kicked out, it’d mean no more safe houses and meals on tap. They’d have had to go stray or find their own humans, and either option was a wee bit dicey. He yawned and blinked lazily, his eyes reflecting the still green water.
One moment the towpath was empty, the next two cats were walking down it. Cats are apt to appear from nowhere, so that wasn’t overly surprising. But they weren’t familiar cats, and the brothers watched them approach with wary interest.
“Hey,” the grey she-cat said. She had extraordinary blue eyes – Harvey was certain he’d have remembered those, if he’d seen her before.
“Hey,” the brothers said together, and glanced at each other around the tree stump.
“Heard about the bunnies?”
“What bunnies?” Harvey asked.
“It seems there’s been a new little clutch of bunnies discovered up in the Highlands. Imagine it! Two lots of experimental bunnies.” The grey cat examined one tidy paw, gave it a cursory lick. Her companion was watching the trees, looking faintly bored.
“What a coincidence,” Charlie said. “The pixies never cease to amaze me.”
“Definitely the same sort?” Harvey asked. “I mean, they weren’t exactly exceptional.”
“Definitely the same. Never come across any other bunnies – or anything for that matter – that can do what they can do.”
Charlie stiffened, resisting the urge to look at his brother. They both leaned forward a little as Harvey said, “What they can do?”
“Yeah. The pheromones. Whole party of Ramblers got taken to the hospital suffering from exposure and dehydration.”
This time the brothers did look at each other, puzzled. “Exposure?” Harvey asked.
“Exposure.” They watched each other for a beat, then the second she-cat looked down from the sky almost reluctantly, the light dappling her ginger and white fur.
“Evie. Stop teasing the poor kittens.”
“Aw. It’s fun.”
“I know.” The she-cat tipped her head to the side, examining Charlie and Harvey with the same distracted interest she had shown in the trees. “The pheromones only affect humans, as far as we can tell. Gets them all frisky. Very frisky, in fact.”
There was another little silence, then Charlie said, “Must have been the most exciting walk they’d had in years.”
Harvey snorted, and tried to cover it up.
Evie said, “As it happens, it’s all sorted. There are still a few places the humans don’t get to, where bunnies can live out their lives in peace.”
“Well, that’s nice,” Harvey replied. “Hope the harpies don’t sniff these ones out.”
This time it was the ginger cat that snorted, and Evie looked at her. “C’mon, Scarlett – give them credit for sticking to their story, at least.”
“What story?” Charlie demanded. “There’s no story -”
“Yeah, just like there was no ‘were,” Evie replied. “Right?”
“Well, there wasn’t -”
“Ach, don’t lie to us.” Scarlett sounded amused. “We know where your ‘were is. And good work, by the way – the Watch stand on ‘weres is completely outdated.”
“As with many things,” Evie agreed.
The brothers watched the two she-cats without responding, and finally Scarlett said, “Your secret’s safe, boys. And as it happens, we’re recruiting.”
“Recruiting for what?” Harvey asked.
“You know how the Watch makes sure all the Folk keep their heads down and respect the treaties?”
“Sometimes someone needs to watch the watchers.”
“We’re in,” Charlie said immediately. “Right, H?”
Harvey rolled his shoulders thoughtfully, then shrugged. “Sure. What the hell.”
Charlie whooped, and bounced into the path. “So what now? What do we do first?”
“Your jobs,” Scarlett said mildly. “We need people on the inside.”
“We’ll be in touch,” Evie added, and before either tom could protest, they were gone.
Charlie looked up and down the canal, as if expecting something more to happen, then walked back to the tree stump and sat down in his little circle of flattened grass. After a moment he said, “I somehow expected that to be more dramatic.”
Harvey huffed. “You always expect things to be more dramatic.”
Charlie watched the water and thought that there was nothing particularly wrong with that.
You may remember Charlie and Harvey, from The Tiddy Un & the Knucker – they’re a couple of my favourite characters from the BBN, and now I’m back working on it they keep insisting that they have more stories to tell. But they may have to be a little patient – there are others that want their stories told, too. Not that I think patience is particularly their strong suit…
Hope you enjoyed a little more background to the world of the BBN – you can find out more about it here, and please feel free to comment, follow and share.