Author: Chris Cook
"Here we are," Willow said, dropping nimbly down from a gutter onto a crate. She had led Tara across the rooftops towards the setting sun a fair distance, finally turning towards the river, taking advantage of a pedestrian bridge to cross the main road. Where the river broadened into a bay there were a cluster of wide one storey buildings with flat rooves, and Tara found her tail perking up of its own accord at the strong scent of dozens of varieties of fish.
"What is this place?" she wondered.
"Fish shop," Willow said, "a giant fish shop. These big boats go out and catch them from the deep water somehow, then bring them here and hundreds of people show up and take them home to eat. Or some of them eat it here... only they like to burn it before they eat it."
"I know," Tara said with a wry grin, "my people do that too... Only with what they eat, though, they know better than to give me burned fish."
"If you ask me, the whole human sense of taste is warped," Willow replied. "Anyway, there's always some left over at the end of each day, so if you know how... we'll just scoot under here," she added, flattening herself against the ground to crawl beneath a sliding door, "yeah, if you know how," she went on as Tara emerged behind her, "you can grab a bit before it disappears to wherever they take their left-overs. Quiet now."
She and Tara slunk stealthily among towers of crates, Willow pausing at each corner, peering around before twitching her tail to signal the all-clear for Tara to follow her.
"Here we go," she said finally, after they reached the other side of the crates. A series of trays were stacked vertically in a rack, most with pieces of fish scattered about them, but all reeking with the scent of them, clearly having carried much greater loads earlier in the day.
"We don't want to hang around too long," Willow advised, "people wander around now and then. Pick a decent piece of your favourite and we'll go somewhere safe to eat. Oh, and careful when we go back under that door, you don't want to get any dirt on your dinner." She sniffed around a few trays, finally finding a variety she liked and snapping up a piece. Tara picked up a familiar scent and followed it back to its source, nudging aside a couple of scraps to reach a fair-sized portion of fish.
With their fish securely held in their jaws, the two cats retreated from the building to a small patch of parkland nearby. Willow ducked under a vacant bench and pushed her way through some bushes to a tiny stream bed, setting her fish down on a smooth stone jutting up out of the water.
"I like this place," she said, "during the middle of the day the water runs through here. The people seem to like it, so they turn the stream on when they're around. It keeps the rocks nice and clean, good to eat off. Just don't nap here around midday, or you get a rude awakening... oh," she looked down, "um, if you want the rock... there's another one just over here I can use-" Tara shook her head and dropped her fish next to Willow's.
"I don't mind sharing," she offered. Willow's ears slanted forward happily as she sat back down, and her tail twitched merrily now and then once she'd tucked it neatly around her feet.
"This is nice," Tara said shyly after taking a few bites, "I'd expected... well, you know, living off the land..."
"Freshly-caught rat for dinner?" Willow finished for her. "Nah... there's some cats that live like that, usually the ones who refuse to have anything at all to do with people. Even if it's just relieving them of some bits of fish they don't have any use for," she added with a wink. "Besides, if I started eating rats, Amy'd never let me hear the end of it. Don't let that little meek rat act of hers fool you, she can lay on a guilt trip like nobody's business." Tara gave an amused little purr, then looked quizzically at Willow.
"How come..." she began, "I mean... when you say cats who don't want anything to do with people... I kind of got the impression you'd be one of them." Willow paused, then shrugged.
"Yeah, I can see why," she admitted. "Look, I don't hate people, as a whole. I mean, there's cats, people, rats, mice, birds... more-broody-than-thou bats," she added with a chuckle, "we're all here, and we do the best we can. For all their faults, people have as much right to be here as we do. So I try not to be any trouble, and mostly people are no trouble to me. I've watched the big fish shop, for example, I've seen them chase strays out in the morning when the fish is piled high, but they don't bother much about the leftover fish in the evening - so that's when I go there."
She took another bite of fish and chewed it thoughtfully.
"But," she added, swallowing, "when people think it's okay to own us, like we're... like we're just toys, that bothers me. If some human gets all upset about me taking a bit of fish, fine, I'll leave him and his fish alone. But if he thinks that giving me fish means that he's in charge of me, I don't... it's not worth it. I'd rather be on the street than owned, even if it did mean I had to chase my own food and maybe go hungry sometimes."
She reached for another piece of fish, then hesitated and looked at Tara, dipping her whiskers regretfully.
"Sorry," she said in a soft meow, "I shouldn't have gone on like that. I don't mean to offend you."
"I..." Tara began, then dipped her whiskers likewise, "it's alright. I'm not offended." Willow smiled gratefully.
"Can I ask you something?" Tara said abruptly.
"Sure," Willow said, surprised.
"Your collar," Tara began hesitantly, "I thought... only housecats had them...?" Willow gave her a level stare, then nodded sadly.
"Yeah," she agreed, "only housecats. So far as I know, anyway." She took a bite of fish, then glanced into Tara's curious gaze.
"I was owned," she admitted. "A long time ago."
"You ran away?" Tara asked gently. Willow shook her head.
"Not me," she explained. "I was a kitten, probably no bigger than your Miss Kitty. My people were a male and a female, living in a little apartment in a building across the other side of town, over the river. They both went out during the day, to do whatever it is people have to do - getting food, or running one of those shops, or whatever. They'd give me a meal in the morning, and leave a snack for me to have later... they'd come home, one or other of them would put dinner out for me. Give me a pat now and then, and I'd purr, or the female would sometimes put me in her lap, and stroke me while she was reading, or watching the television thingy. It was..." she sighed, "it was a decent life." Her tail lay motionless as she remembered, and her ears turned outward glumly.
"Then one day they went away," she continued. "I don't know where. Packed up all their things and put them in a truck. Gave me a pat, picked me up, put me down on the building's front step, and just drove off. I never saw them again. I was..." she paused and sniffed back a sob. "I was just a little kitten... never even been outside the building before. People would look at me now and then, and just walk past. I waited... two days, I waited for them to come back. But they didn't. I wanted to cry, but I thought I just had to wait a little longer, and they'd come back... so I didn't cry. I got hungry, and slept out in the cold waiting for them-" She broke off and turned away, hunching her shoulders and dipping her head down.
"I-I was cold, and hungry," she went on in a tiny voice, "and the second night, this little ratling came up to me and asked if I was okay. I didn't know what to say, I'd never met a rat before or anything, so I just said I was hungry, which was the first thing that popped into my head to say. And she scuttled off, and I curled up again and tried to keep warm while I was waiting, and I didn't think anything more of her. Then... later, she came back, and she was dragging this scrap of paper, and there was a bit of fish wrapped up in it... She'd dragged it all the way from where she found it, going backwards, pulling it with her teeth, and she was even smaller than I was."
"Amy?" Tara asked quietly. Willow nodded.
"She was just a little ratling," she said, "plus, her being a rat and me being a cat... she was afraid of me, you know? Afraid of a little kitten. She told me later... but she didn't leave me there. The people who owned me did. A rat brought me food, when my people," she said bitterly, "left a kitten out on the street."
Tara wanted to cry herself, but Willow's silence stopped her. On soft paws she moved closer, letting her tail touch Willow's as she sat next to her.
"My collar..." Willow went on after a moment, "I... it reminds me. After a while it was getting tight, as I was growing up, and Amy helped me undo it. Rat paws are good for that sort of thing. I could've just got rid of it... but I asked her to put it back on, just looser. So I don't forget. It's... what happened to me... it's part of who I am."
Tara gently touched her forehead to Willow's neck, then rubbed her nose up behind her ear. A sad little purr escaped Willow.
"You never cried?" Tara asked softly.
"I-I n-n... never..." Willow began to reply, then she slowly lay down at Tara's feet. She craned her neck back, eyes closed, and let out a quiet, mournful meow, crying softly into the night. Tara lay down with her, their furry sides pressed against each other, and rested her head on Willow's paws.
Finally Willow grew silent, and let her head drop down, her chin resting between Tara's ears. She slowly realised that Tara was purring, quietly and hesitantly - not purring in response to anything, but deliberately. The sound soothed her, and the vibrations touched her through the soft skin of her neck, resting against the back of Tara's head.
"Th-that's nice..." she whispered after a moment.
"One time," Tara said, "my person, Buffy... she'd been seeing a male for a while, a tom. And I think he decided not to see her anymore... at least, he never came to the house after that. I didn't know that at the time, I just came into her room one day and she was crying. You know, the way people do, when their eyes leak... she was so sad I could feel it, and I didn't know what to do. But I knew she liked my purr, she's always patting me and then resting her head on my side while I purr, so I jumped up on the bed next to her and lay up against her and purred. And it made her feel better. I-I... what your people did to you was... terrible... I just want you to feel better, somehow, even if it's only a bit..."
"I do," Willow said gratefully, "I really do... Your people are so lucky, you know... do they- they're good people, right?"
"Yes, they are," Tara replied, turning her head slightly to look at Willow, as she lay her head down beside her. "I understand why you feel the way you do about people, I do. I-I wish your people had been better... Buffy and Dawn, and Giles and Joyce, though, they aren't like that. They'd never do what your people did." She looked grief-stricken suddenly. "They must be so worried about Miss Kitty and me..."
"Shh," Willow soothed her, "it's not your fault Miss Kitty got stuck in that truck. A-and you're doing the best thing you can for your people. You're bringing her back to them, so... so they don't have to lose part of their family."
"What if," Tara meowed miserably, "what if they think we ran away? If th-they think... I left them, like your people left you? How could I leave them like that-"
"No," Willow said quickly, "I don't... Tara, listen. I know I don't know your people, and I've been all anti-people anyway, but... but I'm sure they wouldn't think that. I'm sure they... they know you love them. And you're going to come back to them, and bring Miss Kitty home to them, and you'll be a whole family again."
Tara purred nervously, and gave a weak little smile.
"I'll do my best," she said.
"Me too," Willow promised. She paused a moment, hesitating, then reached forward just enough to brush her nose against Tara's. "You'll be alright," she whispered. Tara blinked in surprise, but before she could respond Willow was getting up.
"Come on, let's finish dinner," she said, "save a few bites, it'll last until morning - we'll have a good breakfast so we're all ready to go rescue Miss Kitty. Okay?"
"Right," Tara smiled, getting back up and returning to her meal. Now and then, though, she'd steal glances at Willow, when she wasn't looking, and a little, thoughtful frown creased her furry brow.
After dinner the two cats found a soft patch of ground, out of the wind and sheltered by leaves, and curled up to rest. Tara found sleep elusive, and after she had gotten up and padded down her chosen spot three times, Willow sidled up to her.
"You okay?" she asked.
"Fine," Tara said, with what she hoped was a reassuring smile, "just, you know... unfamiliar ground. I miss the blankets in my basket," she admitted with a shy grin. "Actually... when it's time to sleep, Miss Kitty always hops into my basket and curls up next to me." She paused, and slowly lay down. "I miss her."
Willow watched her for a moment, then silently lay down with her, nestling against her. Almost automatically Tara rolled more onto her side, letting Willow curl up against her stomach, with her head pillowed on Tara's paws.
"Is that okay?" she asked. "I mean, just to, you know... so you'll feel better."
"Yes," Tara purred warmly, "thank you, Willow."
"'At's what I'm here for," she murmured, already sounding sleepy. Tara listened to her breathing, with its soft purr, for a while. Drowsiness came to her easier, and she closed her eyes. Quietly, so as not to wake Willow, she whispered: "I love you."