They could hear the Chawbones coming before they could see them.
While the rats convened on the Hughes Park basketball court, laughing about how disastrous the weekly game was about to go for their incoming opponents, the dogs' convoy was quickly making its presence known through the loud music pounding out of their car speakers. The thumps of the kick drum and the squeals of horns from the cheap keyboards echoed through the Alley announcing the Bones' arrival long before the Biters' eyes met them. In stark contrast to the punk rock guitars of the rats' music, the Chawbones enjoyed electronic sounds, bouncing and thumping along loudly, as if the synthesized sounds were more effective at proclaiming their presence.
Sneering, Alfie turned toward Vinny, standing just to his left. "Put 'is in a basket, mate. This is gonna turn ugly 'fore too long."
"Long as we keep our court, it c'n get ugly as they wannit to," Vinnie replied.
Most of the groups who came into the Alley for the weekly game were careful not to rub the rats the wrong way. They realized they were on what was, effectively, foreign soil and knew better than to stir up trouble. Not so with the Bones. The terriers, more than happy to embrace the term "chav" that was thrown toward them, came rolling in, the music at full volume, their cheap Clios and Ford Fiestas popping right up over the curbs and onto the grass of Hughes Park. It took all the rats had in them not to start a fight then and there.
"Well lookit 'ese li'l dumplings! Ain't seen us in a minute, 'ave we?" one called to them, a particularly tall and lanky dog in his logo-emblazoned sportswear and gold chain, stepping out of the passenger seat of the car he'd arrived in. The rats said nothing in return.
"Awww, I don't think 'ey like ye too much, Rudy!" another barked out with a laugh, throwing a beer can randomly off to the side. "Like 'ey just wanna sink 'ose bucky teeth in y' throat, innit?"
Also unlike the other groups who came for the Sunday game, the Chawbones brought more than just the ones who were going to be playing. Maybe it was that they wanted their own support, maybe they were hoping to intimidate the rats, but either way it meant that multiple gaudy compacts were making their way toward the court, tracking through the grass and stopping in random locations. There was no pretense to the Bones' arrival, no attempt at putting on a friendly face with a handshake and a smile. To an outsider watching the way the two groups squared off against one another, it would have looked as though they were planning on a straight-up brawl rather than a basketball game. With the way the last meeting had gone, it wasn't an unfair assumption.
And so, several compact car loads of loud, obnoxious canines piled out into Hughes park, baring teeth and laughing as loudly as they could manage. It was almost like the gang enjoyed how their presence made the rats' fur stand on end. Really, it wasn't almost like that, it was like that.
Seconds ticked away, fading into minutes, with the group of dogs making their way onto the court. On the bleachers, the rats' earlier jubilant attitude was replaced with a hushed silence, murmurs barely audible over the din from the visiting posse. The memory was still fresh in many minds. Some months ago, the game between rats and dogs hadn't been able to finish before the two sides were at each other's throats, plays interrupted by thrown elbows and trips that were met with howled vulgarities and threats that came dangerously close to being followed up on. Finally, the tension reached its breaking point when one of the Bones headbutted one of the rats, and all hell broke loose. Under any other circumstances, the police would have been called, but being it was the Alley, none were coming. Instead, by the time the two sides separated, there were broken noses and bite wounds, blood on the court, and rats shouting at the departing terriers that if they ever came back to the Alley, they'd be buried there.
Time heals all wounds, as the saying goes, and one of the Chawbones drove straight into the heart of the Alley, seemingly unconcerned about the previous threats, to make the case that they should be allowed back for another challenge. The schedule of games was generally decided by other groups coming to talk to the previous winners and lay down the challenge. Then, the winners would send a representative back to the neighborhood of the team chosen to come in for the game, and the next day they would play. When an especially burly dog drove up to Hughes Park to have a chat with the Biters on the court, he was nearly run off, but Vinny's older brother Scraps decided to give an open ear to the visiting canine.
"Now why should we let you lot back 'ere, eh?" Scraps spat at the big terrier.
Muscled arms out to the sides and a shit-eating grin on his face, the dog put on his best friendly demeanor. "'Ey now, we's all mates here, ain't we? Think we got off on th' wrong paw last time. Not our fault li'l Marty couldn't keep hisself composed. I swear down, 'e ain't wit' us now, you jolly lads got nuffin' t' worry about. We just want a fair shake at th' court like anybody else."
Scraps looked sidelong at the dog. "Izzat right."
"Well, an' we ain't allowed back at th' park back 'ome."
The rat snorted. "An' why might 'at be, eh?"
"I fink we shouldn't focus on th' negative righ' now. You know well as I do 'at it'd be good f' both of us t' have a nice li'l bounce, no troubles, just showin' 'at the Bitas and Bones ain't out t' rip each otha t' shreds."
Scraps looked over at the others. He was the oldest of the Biters currently on the team, which meant the decision fell on him. The wiry rat ran a hand through his greasy hair and over his ear, not sure what he wanted to be the one to open the gates to the Chawbones a second time, but at the same time not wanting to be the reason a long-standing feud started. The games were more than just to see who got to use the park for the next week, they were a standing truce of sorts between the various groups around Toxteth. As long as once a week someone had a game against the champions for rights to the court, there was no need for violence. At least, that was the idea. Snubbing the Chawbones meant risking that they would run in just to cause trouble, and the last thing Scraps wanted was to be the reason a few molotovs got thrown through Alley windows.
Eyes on the outstretched hand, the rat eventually reached out to clasp it, fingers squeezing to show that while he was offering an olive branch, his kindness should not be confused for weakness.
"You or y' mates make me regret this an' you know it ain't gonna end clean, eh?"
The dog laughed. "Wouldn't dream of it."
So, two days later, the Chawbones were back in the Alley. Despite the initial skepticism and reservations on the rats' part, the two groups seemed ready for a peaceful competition. Although it was never a difficulty to see, on sight, who was on which team when it came to games with the Alley rats, the division between Biters and Bones was even more stark. On one side, punks with their torn jean shorts, leather boots on mohawks. On the other, dogs in imitation diamonds and gold chains, sports logos and brands covering their shorts and shirts, all wrapped up in an artificial veneer of affluence. The rats embraced their poor environment while the dogs seemed determined to make the image that they were better off than they were. The rats, insulated and walling themselves off from the outside world. The dogs, chomping at the bit to invade any areas they could. Two single-species teams, both from the poorer regions of Liverpool, both demonized by the local press and known more for their criminal activity than anything else, yet somehow so diametrically opposed to one another.
To the great surprise of the rats and the few dogs watching from the side, the game got off to a calm start. Too calm, even. A chubby rat tossed the ball up for the tip-off, and the the pair of teams began quietly jogging along the concrete court, softly shouting play calls at one another. It was clear both were working in overdriver to avoid being the reason the game went south.
Unfortunately, it didn't take long before south the game went. An errant elbow thrown by one of the rats caught a dog on the side of the head and sent him sprawling, prompting every one of the Bones to immediately pour onto the court and bring the game to a screeching halt.
"I thought 'is was gonna be a friendly game!!" one shouted.
"We came 'ere t' play ball, not 'ave a fight!!" another echoed.
Others piled in, adding to the fray, and it was a struggle to keep the two sides from getting into the fistfight everyone was expecting. In truth, it was hard to know just why the two were being so genial toward one another. On the surface, it seemed that both the murines and the canines wanted to have a basketball game free of bloodshed, but there was an undeniable undercurrent that both were being as pleasant as they could be just so the blame would fall on the other side when things inevitably turned fully sour. The truce between the two sides was held together by string and paper clips, ready to break at a moment's notice.
At a break, Alfie slumped on a bench on the side of the court, elbows on his thighs.
"What's got you all nipped?" a smaller rat asked him.
Alfie snorted, taking a drink from his water bottle. "Just waitin', Jake."
"F' what?" came the reply.
"F' this game to go th' way th' last one promised to."
So the game began again, rats and dogs meshing in with one another. As before, the lack of action on the court clearly seemed to portend the tension between the two sides, dogs and rats glaring at one another as the orange ball bounced back and forth. Even as baskets were sunk, neither side seemed overly exuberant about the game, watching with bated breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
For a while, it seemed as if the shoe would stay aloft after the initial dust-up. As tense as the scene was, both the dogs and rats were doing their best to keep the game friendly, with the worst being tossed from side to side being words. Sadly, it didn't last long, the colorful Chawbones snapping and yelping at their opponents, the Biters returning in kind, all showing strength as best as they could, both daring the other side to take it further and threatening what would happen if they did. While baskets were sunk, the two teams were getting more and more riled against one another, teeth bared and gritted.
The audience of rats and dogs on either side of the Hughes Park court sat with their jaws clenched, fingers digging into the old wood, praying that even as tensions mounted between the two sides it wouldn't have become anything greater than just words and shoving. Neither even felt confident enough to cheer or shout at the game itself, focused too much on the gradually building catastrophe. It was like watching a car speeding out of control, knowing full well that it would end in tragedy but hoping that maybe, just maybe, it would manage to avoid the trees and oncoming traffic. That was not the case, though, as the early little tiffs were making way for larger confrontations, little arguments over nudges turning into full-blown fights that had to be broken up by the other players physically separating the two.
"Y' fuckin' elbow me again an' I'm takin' ya ear off, y' dirty cunt!!!" Vinny hollered at one of the dogs while two rats held him back, spitting furiously, blood staining his yellowed front teeth.
The elbow-throwing canine was no less furious, barking back, "Y' lucky it wuz just an elbow, y' filthy li'l pinka! I saw what y' did t' Hugo!!"
"An' I'll do it again if 'e don't keep 'is bloody paws where they's supposed t' be!!"
Alfie, in the middle of things, was fighting the hardest to maintain his composure, finding himself in the uncomfortable position of trying to play referee (the actual referee, a squat little rat appropriately nicknamed Cheeks, was keeping his distance). All the while, throughout the struggle, the Biter Boy's mind was reaching back to think about Muri and the warnings she'd given him back when they'd parted ways during her visit to the Alley. It didn't matter what the situation was, what the others were doing, what mattered was how the Alley rats conducted themselves, their public presentation paramount. With Murina representing one of their own, it was critical for the rats to keep it together and stay clear of further bad press. Under other circumstances, there'd be the danger of an arrest, and a mugshot of a client would be a death blow to his drafting chances. In the Alley, that would have been preferable. As it stood, there were larger concerns.
Those concerns turned from hypotheticals to reality in an instant, after a thrown beer bottle from a drunk rat on the sidelines sent the Chawbones into an out and out frenzy. The struck dog dropped to the concrete, holding onto his head where the glass cracked into him, while the others around him immediately began running straight into the bleachers, all thought of the game ignored. The ball itself sailed off into the distance, heaved by Alfie as he sprinted straight into the melee.
The big rat dove in, shoving and shoulder charging his way into the two groups, in a desperate attempt to separate them. If this were any other time, he'd have been more than happy to start splitting heads open and stomping them down into the pavement for thinking they could come into HIS territory and cause trouble. With a professional sports career hanging over his head, though, all the big Norwich wanted was for the dogs to go, to leave the Alley before things got even worse.
All around him, rats and dogs were throwing fists, biting and clawing, every last seed of hatred between the two blooming. The sounds of shouts and screams only barely covered the thunks of flesh to flesh, and rats were pouring out of the houses surrounding the park to watch the brawl. Standing half a head over all assembled and outweighing nearly all of them, Alfie's mohawk swam above the surface like a blue dorsal fin, the shark's teeth grinding into each other as he fought off every instinct to tear the Chawbones limb from limb.
Not that they were making it easy for the big Biter to play peacemaker. As he flung his arms around, throwing rats and dogs to the side in equal measure, not caring if they fell as long as they weren't against one another, the Bones were piling on him, trying to bring him down. Alfie's reputation made him a prime target for the dogs, each of them eager to prove their own mettle and take on the burly rodent, although they certainly weren't going to go after him alone. Or without help.
A searing pain shot through Alfie's arm, the rat wincing and immediately clapping a hand over his triceps. The spot was warm, and it was damp.
"Y' FUCKIN' BLADED ME?!?" Alfie roared at the top of his lungs. The referee was gone. There would be no more tries at keeping the peace from Alphonse Norwich IV. Like a switch had been flipped, Alfie went from trying to shove the dogs away to grasping at them to pull them in, not knowing which had brought the knife, and not caring. One of them had, and that was enough for him to take it out on them all.
The sound perked every ear on the court, heads snapping to see what had happened. Just off to the side of the concrete surface, one of the Chawbones' cars sat, its windshield white, spidered. In the corner of it, an unmistakeable tiny hole, the source of the glass's splintering. While the owner of it ran over to wail over his cheap car's damage, all heads turned to see where it had come from, the din of the row immediately silenced as they saw.
Nicholas Norwich stood, eyes wide, his hands shakily gripped around a pistol.
"Y... you fuckin' nonnies back off!!" he sputtered. Nicky did his best to look threatening, but the young rat looked as afraid of the weapon in his hands as those it was pointed at.
He didn't need to look threatening. A knife in a fight was one thing. To an extent, it was almost expected. Neither the Chawbones nor the Biters were known for being clean fighters, the Bones in particular having a reputation for leaving victims with gashes and stab wounds (the rats preferred blunt force trauma). A gun, on the other hand, was foreign territory. It didn't take long for the canines to get the hint, immediately scrambling into their cars and driving off. Normally, going after a Bones' ride was grounds for a stabbing, but staring down the barrel of a handgun, they thought better of it. Just as quickly as the fight had started, it was over. There were tracks through the grass, a few spatters of blood on the court, but it was over.
Even after the dogs scarpered, the rats stood, staring at Nicky. The teen's chest was heaving, breaths quick. His eyes were still locked on where the Chawbones had been a moment before, almost afraid to blink. Like if he closed his eyes for even a second, the dogs would be back. so he stood, ramrod straight, the gun in his hands quivering.
All around him, the rats gave a wide berth, none wanting to be in the line of fire. It wasn't that any of them were afraid he'd intentionally squeeze the trigger, more than he'd unintentionally squeeze it. The miniature Alfie had been standing on the opposite side of the court from the car that he'd shot, and it was a miracle that no flesh had gotten between the two as the slug whizzed along. The sea of rats parted swiftly, none sure how to approach the young rat and his freshly fired weapon.
"...Nicky?" a voice called out.
"Nicky," it repeated.
The rat turned his head, snapped back into reality by the loud voice that was just inches from him now. Alfie stood at his side, the larger brother staring in disbelief at his sibling. He gently reached outward and rested his hand atop the pistol, nudging it downward.
"Nicky... put th' 'ardware down. Th' Bones is gone, mate. Y' can relax, eh?"
"Th... they knifed ye, Alfie... I saw it... I 'ad t'..."
"Nicky, Nicky. Take a breath. C'mon, 'en."
"Nicky, where th' FUCK did you get 'is?!?"
Back at the Norwich home, Alfie was less consoling. He was angry, but the anger was born from a clear concern. He paced in the upstairs room, his younger brother sitting down on the mattress, hunched inward on himself. The rest of the family sat downstairs, told explicitly to stay away while the two of them had a talk.
"I... it... I just found it, right?"
A big hand quickly reached out and smacked the smaller mohawked rat on the side of the head, making him whimper and cower down further. "I ain't playin' wit' ye, mate!" Alfie hollered. "You tell me right th' fuck now. Where. Did. You. Get. This. Gun?"
Nicky waited as long as he could, too ashamed to look up at Alfie. He'd bought the gun to be the protector. To show all those Bones, and any other nonnies in the Alley, that the rats were in charge. He thought that it would make him a hero. A big rat. Like his brother.
Alfie's jaw dropped. Kel, no one actually knew his full name, was a scrawny little rat known better for the disasters that just seemed to happen around him that, somehow, he always denied having a part of. Rumors abounded about what kind of business he did, but for the most part no one wanted anything to do with him, except in times of desperation. Which was just how he liked it. "KEL? You... that... Nick, y' KNOW that minger ain't t' be trusted! It mighta blown y' mitts off th' second y' pulled the trigga!"
"But, but Al-"
"An' 'ow'd ye get th' cash for it anyway?? What did you give 'im?!"
"I... I 'elped 'im out wit' some things, right??"
Another gaped stare from Alfie. "Fuck me sideways, Nicky, you "'elped him out"? Nicky. Y' can't..." Alfie sighed and rubbed at his eyes, trying hard to keep his calm. "You look at me. Blinkas up 'ere. Nicky. You do not go near 'at fuckin' rat again. I don't know what he 'ad you do, an' I don't wanna know. But that's th' end of it. You see 'im, an' he gives you a press, tell 'im 'e can come t' me."
"Y' wit'??" Alfie barked.
Nicky swallowed hard, nodding his head. He didn't want to talk any more. He wanted to hide.
"An' fuckin' hell, Nick. D'ye realize what 'is means now??" Alphonse IV leaned against the doorframe, head back, against the wall. "As if we didn't 'ave enough t' deal wit'. Now they gonna be sayin' th' rats is comin' wit' shootas! It was bad enough when we just 'ad to worry about a couple blades or a bat, but if they's thinkin' we all got the heavy artillery, who KNOWS what they'll do!"
"I'm SORRY, Alfie! I was ju-"
"Button it!" Alphonse interrupted. Nicky immediately complied. "Look 'ere. It's a miracle twice over 'at th' coppas don't come 'is way, now? I ain't so sure. An' if they think we're carryin'? What d' ye think they're gonna bring? I'm... we're gonna 'ave t' go out into th' swamp an' try an' explain that it's just YOUR mess. Go thank th' stars y' didn't hit nobody! Was you even lookin' where you were shootin?"
Once again, Nicky said nothing.
"I didn't think so." Alfie dropped down on the mattress next to his younger sibling. "Nicky... I know what ye was TRYIN' t' do but... y' gotta THINK first. Now you know what you're gonna do? You're gonna take that fuckin' sidearm BACK to Kel, an' tell him 'at there's no more biz 'tween you to. An' if he don't like it, 'e can come t' me. Y' wit?"
Nicky nodded, miserably, looking at the pistol on the floor at his feet. In front of him, Alphonse sighed and shook his head.
"I love ye, mate, but... if you don't learn t' use ye grey, y'll find yeself in real trouble someday. C'mon 'en. Liv said she's got a whoppa cookin' t'night. But afta suppa, you go find Kel."
He turned to leave the room, when Nicky piped up, meekly.
"C'n... c'n you come wit' me?"
Alphonse looked at his brother closely, those big brown eyes wide, pleading. He shook his head. "Mate, if 'e thinks I brought y' down like an angry dad, how's that gonna look f' you? Y' gotta go an' stand on y' own two paws." The fear in Nicky's eyes was evident. "But... if it'll make y' feel betta, I won't be far be'ind. Make sure 'e don't try nothin' funny, eh?"
"I'm sorry, Alfie..."
Alphonse let out a breath. "I know, mate. You made a mess, an' your gonna help clean it up. But I ain't 'ere t' beat y' ova the head about it. Now les' go. I need a nip, I'm sure you do, too."
Slowly, Nicholas took to his feet, and followed Alfie downstairs. They got their food, baked chicken with rice, sitting with the rest of the family, and ate quietly. No one wanted to bring up what had happened, but no one knew what else to say. Eventually Roger broke the tension by putting a handful of rice in Beatrice's hair, getting a laugh out of the older men and chastizing remarks from Natalie, more still from Emma. For the time being, they could forget about the afternoon's disaster of a game. After all, it meant the rats still owned the court, and they were sure the next week's would go better. Besides, Alfie had to worry about packing up for America. The draft was just around the corner, and this was the last thing he needed to have hanging over his head.
The weekly game between the Biter Boys and the Chawbones finally happens, and one young rat's attempts at being tough do not work out as planned.
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