Author: Chris Cook
Willow walked along just a step behind Tara, who was leading the way, and Miss Kitty, who was excitedly recounting her 'adventure' as a prisoner of the rat gang. The excitement of her rescue seemed to have pushed the fear she had felt from her mind. She chattered about the rats, listened to Tara describing how she had found her and how Willow had gathered all the animals that had helped them, interrupting frequently with exclamations.
Willow grinned despite herself at the kitten's enthusiasm for, well, everything, and mustered a warm smile whenever Tara glanced back at her. But in truth she was lost in her own thoughts.
"So what now, Will?" Amy had said, once they had made their way back to the park. True to form the humans occupying the building had been too busy making a fuss about the malfunctioning machines, and the rats scurrying all over the place, to look too closely and notice the furtive cats sneaking out while their backs were turned. Someone had called out 'Hey, is that a dog?', just as Xander was heading for the door, but no-one had paid much attention, or bothered going after them.
On reaching the park, the group had gone its separate ways. Angel had wandered off, grumbling about having to find a branch to hang from so late in the day, when all the best ones were taken. Xander had headed back to where all the dogs played, in the hope of finding Cordelia before her people took her off to be groomed for the hundredth time. Amy had hung around for a moment, while Tara cleaned Miss Kitty while she was snacking on a piece of chicken from a picnic table no-one had been paying attention to.
"Well," Willow had said half-heartedly, "I guess I'll walk them home... you know, just make sure they get there all right."
"Uh-huh," Amy had nodded. "And then?"
"What do you mean, and then?" Willow asked quickly. "And then I'll... I'll just... same as usual. Wander around... grab a bite to eat... stuff..."
"Hey Will," the rat said, glancing around nonchalantly, "you ever think of settling down?"
"Settling down how?"
"With a family, I mean," Amy said patiently.
"Of course not!" Willow had said automatically, "I'm not a house cat, I'm me!"
Amy had departed shortly after, intent on making sure the rumours she was sure would spread about her part in the defeat of Spike were suitably embellished and flattering to her personally. 'Why did she say goodbye?' Willow wondered, walking along listening with half an ear to Tara's gentle voice. Amy had said goodbye when she left - not 'goodbye' the way she and Willow usually said it, meaning 'I'll be back before you know it' in Amy's case, or 'I'm sure you'll turn up soon' in Willow's.
'It's not like I'm not coming back,' Willow thought to herself, 'why did she say goodbye like 'goodbye'? I mean, what, I'm going to stay with Tara? Sure I'd love to, but me? House cat? How's that going to work?'
"Um, Willow," she imagined Tara saying, "would you like to stay with me and be a house cat?"
"Why sure," Willow imagined herself replying jauntily, "I just can't wait to give up the freedom and independence of being a street cat, in exchange for a bowl with my name on it, and some people thinking they own me, and being expected to sleep on a blanket in a corner somewhere... with you. All snuggled up, with your paw around me, and I can hear you purring gently in your sleep..."
'Didn't that sentence start out as sarcastic?' Willow thought to herself. She sighed, and admitted the truth to herself - she wanted to stay with Tara. 'But Tara's a house cat. The only way I could stay with her would be to be a house cat too, and I can't do that, that's not who I am. And she wouldn't want to be a street cat - always having to think ahead to where your next meal is coming from, staying on the look-out for rival cats, having to find somewhere out of the wind and rain to sleep... why do I like this again?' Willow frowned to herself, missing Tara's glance back at her, which lingered, and became concerned.
'But I'm not a house cat' Willow went on to herself, 'I'm not, and houses and non-house cats don't belong together. It's practically written on my collar, 'Street Cat'. That's me. I'm not going back to being some na´ve kitten with people who treat her like a toy, or just toss her away when they're bored of her. I won't be like that again.'
"Willow?" Tara asked, making Willow jump - she'd been so wrapped up in her thoughts that she hadn't noticed Tara drop back to walk beside her.
"What's the matter?"
"What?" Willow asked nervously. "What makes you think anything's the matter? I mean, I could be entirely free of matter. Are there signs of matter?"
"You've got this frown," Tara said, "right here." She leaned over and gave Willow a little lick on her forehead, starting just between her brows. "You looked... anxious."
"Oh," Willow said sheepishly, "yeah... well I was just thinking... um, your people... they're- they're going to take good care of you, right? I mean, proper care of you?"
"They love me and Miss Kitty," Tara assured her.
"Good," Willow said quickly, "good, I was just, you know, wondering..." '...if maybe I could tag along and be part of the family too? 'Cause I'm sure what your people want is a strange cat hanging around the place, they wouldn't have any objections at all.'
"They're good people," Tara went on, "I know you haven't really known people like that, but they are, I promise. You don't have to worry. Um, actually..." she hesitated, then plunged on, speaking quickly as if afraid she wouldn't get the words out if the stopped, "do you think maybe there's any chance you might like to-"
"We're home!" Miss Kitty meowed from up ahead. She raced ahead and turned the corner into the garden, disappearing from view. Tara had turned to her at the sound of her voice, and looked back at Willow, undecided.
"Go on," Willow said gently, "you're home." From nearby came the sound of Giles being surprised, then quickly calling for Dawn.
"Oh my god Miss Kitty!" the girl's voice rang out a moment later.
"I..." Tara began, looking back and forth between Willow and the entrance to her garden, "Willow, you've been so wonderful..."
"No need to thank me," Willow said, automatically, then she ducked, not quite able to meet Tara's gaze as she added, "you know I'd do anything for you."
"Tara?" Buffy's voice came from around the corner, then in an undertone: "well she might be somewhere nearby, I mean if Miss Kitty just found her way back, maybe Tara did too."
"Tara?" Joyce's voice joined her.
"Go on," Willow nudged Tara, who looked at her for a moment, almost pleadingly.
"Come with me?" she asked.
'Yes!' Willow thought.
"I mean," Tara added quickly, embarrassed, "just, walk with me, would you? I don't want to say goodbye, not like this, all rushed..."
"Of course," Willow nodded, smiling broadly to hide her disappointment. Willow walked alongside Tara as she rounded the corner of the driveway, and then sat back and watched as Tara, without meaning to, broke into a run, sprinting the last few metres to her family.
'So this is them,' Willow thought, watching the young blonde scoop up Tara and hug her, whispering to her. The adult female was beside her, reaching around her to rub Tara's stomach tenderly, and was periodically glancing back to share looks with the adult male, whose expression was mid-way between happy and relieved. He had a comforting hand on the shoulder of the other young one, who was cuddling Miss Kitty.
'I want that,' Willow thought sadly to herself, 'family... Tara.' She shook her head. 'Don't be silly, they don't even know me, they wouldn't love me like they do those two. They're family, I'm just some strange cat.' She looked up, seeing movement from the corner of her eye.
Tara had wriggled elegantly out of Buffy's arms, and was walking towards her, with the various humans following. Willow instinctively moved back a step, closer to the corner, then paused as she caught Tara's tear-filled eyes. 'I can't leave her.'
"Willow?" Tara asked, as the humans watched the two cats and exchanged confused glances.
"I'm sorry," Willow said, letting her own eyes fill with moisture, "I want to stay, really I do, but..."
"But what?" Tara asked gently.
"They're your family, not mine," Willow insisted, "they love you... not me."
"One of them does," Tara said, moving a step closer. "Actually," her smile turned to a grin, "two, if you include Miss Kitty. She's taken quite a liking to you too, you know."
"You..." Willow tried to meow.
"I love you," Tara said, "I want you to stay. They're good people, I know they'll love you... but right now, I love you, and I need you."
"You need me?" Willow repeated.
"I need you," Tara nodded. "Please? If you want... I'll be your family."
"If I want?" Willow echoed, surprised. "O-of course I want, I-"
"Stay with me, then," Tara said softly. Willow stared into her eyes, then, feeling like she was floating, walked forward and rubbed her nose against Tara's.
"Can we keep her?" Dawn was already asking.
"Well, I-" Giles said, surprised.
"Look, she's Tara's friend! Oh that's so adorable!" she exclaimed as Tara gave Willow an affectionate lick on the cheek.
"Dad?" Buffy asked.
"Well..." he said again, "I... we'll have to check whether she's already got owners, and take her to the vet-"
"Thank you!" Dawn exclaimed, and she and Buffy hugged Giles, Dawn with only one arm as the other was still full of kitten. Joyce meanwhile knelt down in front of the two cats, and gave Tara a pat.
"She's got a collar," she said to Giles, "but it looks old... hey there," she went on to Willow, "how are you? Are you okay?" She held out a hand, waiting patiently while, with Tara watching, Willow gingerly leaned forward and sniffed her fingertips.
"Good girl," Joyce said, as Willow let herself be patted lightly. Willow gave a tentative purr, which became louder as Tara sat beside her and nuzzled against her neck.
"That is so adorable, isn't it Miss Kitty?" Dawn said, crouching down near the two cats.
"You're gonna stay?" Miss Kitty meowed to Willow. Tara looked at her hopefully.
"Yes," Willow purred, "I'm going to stay."
Tara lay on her favourite rock in the garden, enjoying the sunlight, and watched as two shapes moved stealthily through the piles of leaves, circling each other warily before one pounced, in a blur of black and white, and the two cats wrestled playfully, scattering the leaves everywhere. Her ears pricked up, then relaxed as a creature emerged stealthily from the shrubbery behind her.
"Hi Amy," Tara said, as the rat circled around her rock and stood beneath a low-lying palm frond in front of her. Amy visited once or twice a week, during the day when the people were out at their schools and jobs. On her first visit she had gleefully reported that the remnants of Spike's gang had been chased out of town, and that everything had settled down to normal again. Tara had heaved a sigh of relief at that news - not that she thought it likely Miss Kitty was going to get herself into trouble again. The kitten, though still as playful as ever, had firmly taken to heart Tara's advice of not getting into anything she wasn't sure she could get out of again.
"How's Will?" Amy asked.
"In perfect health," Tara said, "the vet said so."
"She went to the vet?" Amy asked. "Ooh, nasty... I've heard of them."
"They're not so bad," Tara shrugged, "there's a cat biscuit just by that flower, if you're hungry. I thought you might come by today."
"Thanks Tara," Amy said, scampering over to the biscuit and scooping it up.
"Amy!" Willow exclaimed, extricating herself from Miss Kitty's hold and rushing over, with the kitten at her heels.
"Hey Will," the rat smiled, nibbling her biscuit. "Heard you went to the vet. Who'd have thought it, Willow the mighty street cat being taken care of by humans."
"Yeah, yeah," Willow rolled her eyes, "good to see you too."
"Did they take your temperature?" Amy asked innocently. Willow's eyes narrowed.
"If you dare tell anyone," she hissed, "I swear I'll start following the food chain religiously, missy." Amy cringed, and Tara saw the hint of an amused smirk behind Willow's glare as she hopped up onto her rock and lay down next to her. Tara smiled and leaned across to lay her head across Willow's paws, then began to purr as she felt Willow snuggle up to her and gently lick the back of her head.
"That's nice," she murmured contentedly.
"Yay," Willow purred, watching as Amy and Miss Kitty played hide and seek among the bushes. "I'm glad I found you. All of you," she added, "but especially you."
"Of course you found me," Tara smiled, "you said it yourself, remember? You know this town like the back of your paw." She gave Willow's paw a gentle lick for emphasis. "You can find anything."
"I never thought I'd find a cat like you," Willow admitted.
"Me neither," Tara said. "Lucky us."
"Yeah," Willow agreed, "lucky us."