A nasty gash rode the curve of Hare’s jaw line. Tendrils of acrid black smoke wound their way from the opening, tracing along the sharp contours of his cheeks before wafting into nothingness. Another plume of smoke flared from his nostrils as he heaved himself out of the scrap pile that the street rat automatons had left him to fester in. Somehow, it wounded his pride more than the crack to his face that the good-for-nothings didn’t even think it worth leaving him dead.
Stumbling forth a bit, the injured robot got a couple of meters of distance before falling face-first into the junkyard dirt. He spat out a slew of gravel and crumbling muck, using his sharp fingernails to pick out the crud that got trapped between his razor-tipped teeth.
“If I catch ‘em,” he growled, made somewhat less effectual by the occasional bits of oil-based spittle as he tried to rid the last of the dirt from his mouth. “I’m gonna clip ‘em so hard that they’re gonna look like they were sired from cheese graters…”
Patting down his legs, he realized what had kept him from walking upright. The bolts that normally kept the joints of his knees functioning correctly had been loosened to the point of nearly falling out. Scalding dribbles of black oil began seeping from his ears from the intense boil of his fury. Raking the dirt with his hands, he pulled himself forward, bunching up and scooting out to give himself a boost with his slackened knees. Hare resembled a caterpillar of rage as he dragged himself along the ground. Once he reached the roads, he resolved, if anyone dared to do so much as smile funny, he’d pull a landshark and nip at their ankles ‘til their socks ran ragged.
Inch by inch, scrape by scrape, humiliation sizzling into anger that made his forehead plate hot enough to grill strips of bacon, he had a proclivity to just explode—
Hare’s flood of indignant rage paused abruptly, like a row of badly braking cars skidding into each other. Sorting out the dented bumpers of his thought process, he stared at the tiny ball of fluff that had emitted the noise.
He flinched reflexively when it batted at his nose with a watery brown paw. The face of the fluff-ball looked like an ink blot against otherwise cream-colored fur. Little pokes of teeth were bared as it yawned, undaunted by the curls of smog that spiraled from Hare’s gawking maw.
“Yer a kitten,” said Hare, dumbly.
The freshly identified creature bumped its face against his rapidly cooled cheek in reply.
“What’s a runt like you doin’ in a broken glass junkyard?” His demands got no reply, save a wide-eyed stare that looked as though they were marbles made from clear sky.
Hare gnashed his deadly teeth. What sort of scum would just leave a kitten lying around like it was a piece of trash? He’d stomp miniature Walter giraffes into scraps without a second thought, but here was a living, breathing, and honest-to-god-or-whatever-deity cat spawn that was attempting to just get by in life like the rest of the poorly conceived bastards and clamber onto his neck… clamber…
Tiny paw-pads were scrambling for traction on the gleaming surface, pushing aside the out-turned collar of his vest with its hind legs in an effort to move further up.
“No, no, no, ya little devil, sit yer furry little rump on my neck and I’ll crunch yer itty bones to powder here and now.”
Mewling petulantly, it padded its darker-colored paws several times before curling up and snuggling against the ridges of Hare’s neck. He swallowed hard, uncomfortably aware that any sudden, lurching movement could send the kitten tumbling to the hard ground.
"C’mon. Shove off. Cats fall feet-first when they take a rough dose of gravity, yeah?" He was still uneasy. "Yer, uh. Yer mom-cat never taught ya that, I’m guessin’, since you’re wandering alone like some dazed sucker who doesn’t know when he’s ventured too far into the bad parts of a city."
Purring reverberated throughout his throat, radiating from the spot where the kitten had planted itself. Thrumming noise ratcheted down to the very pit of his core. The sensation was unsettlingly warm. Not like the burning stove top temperatures that he reached out of his usual abrasiveness. More like sunshine.
A horrible thought crossed his mind.
"Please tell me I ain’t yer mother now. Are ya just that dumb?"
The kitten (with an additional layer of dread, he realized that he was starting to think of it as his kitten) had already fallen into a sleepy stupor, feeling perfectly secure.
"Listen up," Hare grumbled, unable to see how his passenger was faring. "I can’t do motherin’ stuff worth shit. I live with two brutal nutjobs. One of ‘em probably wants to eat ya or use ya as a loofah or as some sorta edible loofah and I don’t even wanna know. I betcha the other guy’ll try and skin ya as soon as he catches sight of your sorry little hide. He’s been going on and on how he wants a skullcap— okay, that was me who said it, and it was worth the thrashin’ I earned—”
He rambled on to the dozing kitten, talking for hours and hours about inane subjects even as the sun started to set and his throat chafed with raw dryness. If he stopped talking, what if it went away? Maybe it liked the gruff, bruised-up sound of his voice. No one else seemed to stick around for it.
"—and so that’s when I said to my Gwenie, I said, listen’, yer a real fine dame and all when it comes to puttin’ on the hurt, but I’m never gonna let go of the hard knocks in a fight, I’m a brawler at heart. And ya know what she said? What she did? My darlin’ turned off on me! Ya can’t trust power tools in the end. Stay in the tool shed, is what I told her. Frigid niche… " Hare paused, thoughtfully. "Hey. Cat. I’m not gonna move your lazy ass ‘cause it’s yer own fault ya got stuck up there. Learn a tough lesson or two. If ya don’t get lost by nightfall, my neck’s gonna freeze the ends of yer fur together. I don’t do well in the cold."
No movement on the back of his neck.
"I thought cat naps were supposed to be brief. I never heard no nothin’ about a cat snoozin’ for so long, even for runt kittens. Don’tcha hunt? When’s the last time ya ate?" He tried to crane his neck slightly to get a small glimpse of it, but feeling the tiny mass of fur slide off slightly made him rapidly turn his head back to a face-down position.
"This ain’t funny!" howled Hare, wondering if he’d been talking to a dead wad of fur all along. "Ya can’t be…"
“Eyyyyy, lookit what we found!” The drawn out sneer made it far too obvious who was speaking even though Hare couldn’t look up to confirm the dread in his coal-grinding gut. Shambling slabs of lead and corrugated tin-plated rejects began filling up the junkyard, the crunch of glass stomped underfoot piercing the dusk air.
Street rat automatons. They were the same gang that he had tussled with earlier in the day. Now they were back to the only place that would tolerate the presence of shoddily cobbled mistakes. Hare wasn’t a goody two-shoes, but as a Becile turn-out, he was miles above the quality of their make. Rough as they all were, they still saw him as a snot-painted target. The secrets embedded in his engine made him a class enemy.
High pitched steam whistles screeched with nerve-grating hilarity. “Take a good glance at this grand fella! Five whole stinkin’ feet away from where we put ‘im with the rest of the foul rubbish this morning. You must be real proud o’ yourself.”
The ringleader crouched down low, as though he was about to do some push-ups. Face-to-face with Hare, he breathed out a long, thin stream of clove cigarette smoke, tracing a crumpled aluminum finger down the crack he had left in Hare’s chin. He smiled with mottled, grease-stained teeth pilfered from dozens of children.
On the base of Hare’s neck, the kitten’s tail shivered. It didn’t like the smoke, but Hare could almost cry of relief that he got a sign that it hadn’t died somehow. Peril was still evident. Even down two kneecaps and with a gash lining his handsome mug, he still had the swing of his fists to count on. So long as they didn’t discover his passenger…
“Swing one at me,” baited the ringleader, tilting Hare’s face forward delicately with the bumpy tip of his finger. “Or use those nice sharp teeth o’ yours to gouge me a new nostril.”
“Don’t mind if I DO!” he snarled, propping up to his elbows in a flash. His kitten went tumbling down the back of his vest with a surprised mewl, but the noise was lost in the collective stirring of the automaton pack as they began to form a ring around the combatants. Hare swung at his foe’s face, which only laughed and prompted him to hold up a hand as though warding off a mosquito’s blow. Laughter dissolved into peals of shock as the aluminum material crumpled. With a disgusted look, the ringleader nabbed Hare by the ear with his other good hand and twisted his head to the ground. Even dry-mouthed, Hare could still spit a spray of dirt at his opponent’s face. He was treated to a cold, dead stare, still dripping with a powdery coat of filth. Before he could react, the mangled and furious hands grasped him forward, bunching up the fabric of his garment in trembles of hatred.
“We’ll take you down, bolt-by-bolt, and sell you across black markets. We’re gonna light fires with your duds and keep your head as a trophy. I’m personally going to pry you open with a crowbar and see for myself those green rocks that keep you running, you absolute piece of overrated trash—”
Dead silence rang across the junkyard. Without a word, the ringleader reached into the back of Hare’s vest and, groping around, pulled out the kitten by the cream-colored scruff of its neck. Its inky face blinked with confusion, and it yowled pitifully.
If looks were bullets, there wouldn’t have been enough of the ringleader to fill a jam jar.
“Put it down.”
“Awwww, is the widdle cutie-wootie pet o’ yours something you care about? And here I thought you were actually a threat—”
“I SAID PUT IT DOWN!”
“Between you and me,” He shoved his filthy face up against Hare’s, so close that their noses nearly rammed into each other. His rotten grin could have sickened the skies into heaving up acidic rain. “We caught a cat that looked an awful lot like this one. One o’ them fancy Siamese cats. She made pretty little noises when we threw her lil’ babies aside, and she made an even bigger noise when we decided that we were gonna see if cats were made up of metal parts like you ‘n me. And now lookit this! Real nice of you to keep a leftover. Now we can check if it’s true when they say there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”
He straightened up, took a few steps back, and held the kitten up at eye level.
“Always wanted some new gloves.”
With the twisted, smashed slivers of his crumpled hand, he flicked the kitten in the face. Its face contorted into a snarling hiss, and sank its claws into his eyes. The ring of rejects burst out into raucous laughter as their leader twisted around, screaming bloody murder at the tenacious kitten that clung to his face like a burr. Hare lunged wildly, no longer restrained by his worry for the kitten. His fingers banded around the ringleader’s ankles like steel cuffs, and he dragged his way up the flailing body until he was on his feet again, an iron grip clasped on his adversary’s poorly assembled shoulders to keep him held up.
“I could bite yer face off,” stated Hare matter-of-factly, though the spikes of his smile radiated with grim relish. “Me and my cat. We’ll consume ya ‘til there’s nothin’ left.”
His kitten retracted its claws and stepped haughtily off the unnerved face, hackles still raised from the adrenaline of the attack. It slinked down to Hare’s shoulders, where it watched with bright blue eyes as its master delivered a swift punch that knocked the ringleader out cold. The surrounding group slowly dispersed, some outright breaking off and running for their lives.
Sinking down to his loose knees after losing his support, Hare got to work prying the crummy bolts from the street rat automaton and affixed them to his own legs as a temporary measure. For his sturdier frame, they would only last as long as a walk home. They pinched him as he sauntered out of the junkyard, but he couldn’t feel any discomfort. He was filled with the thrill of victory and the feeling of his kitten perched on his shoulder.