Author: Chris Cook
Tara walked slowly along the street, tail slumped in defeat. The sun was at its highest in the sky - normally around the time she'd wander indoors for a snack from her biscuit bowl - and she hadn't seen the van since it left her house. Her own street had eventually joined another, also full of houses, and that led to another, and another, until now Tara's surroundings weren't even remotely familiar. She knew she could find her way back home, but returning without Miss Kitty was a situation she refused to consider. Her other options, though, remained depressing.
She jogged from one lamp-post to the next, staying out of the way of the people wandering about. Tara had concluded they were 'shopping' - her people went shopping every weekend, usually Giles and Joyce, and returned with bags full of cat food and people food. Buffy and Dawn also went shopping, though at less regular intervals, and they tended to return with bags full of new coats, of various styles and patterns. It seemed a needlessly complicated way to get around the fact that people weren't born with decent coats of fur of their own, but then, Tara found many things her people did needlessly complicated, though often adorable.
The people along the street here were apparently of both kinds - some carried bags full of food, others were acquiring types of coats, others still carrying bags and boxes of strange things Tara could only guess at. There didn't seem to be any provision for cats, unfortunately. Tara sat for a moment outside one of the boxy, brightly-coloured houses the people were shopping at, watching them exchange bits of paper for a multitude of varieties of fish, but the person providing the fish didn't seem interested in anyone not offering the bits of paper, so Tara reluctantly moved on. She had a vague suspicion that people weren't the sole source of food a cat might have, but couldn't for the life of her imagine how else it could be obtained, and for the first time it occurred to her that there was a lot she didn't know about the world.
Up ahead was another street, busy with cars. A patch of red on one of the shopping houses opposite caught Tara's eye, and she hurried to the edge of the street, staring across it in the gaps between passing cars. It was a shopping house much like the others - big windows, garish signs and not a lot in the way of homey touches like carpets and plants. But it was one of the signs that caught Tara's attention - a red circle filled with white, and a red stripe running through it. She frowned, second-guessing herself, but concluded that it was indeed the same kind of pattern that the mail van had.
Not fancying braving the cars on her own, Tara glanced to one side to see how the people were negotiating the street. A group were waiting at the side of the pavement, and Tara wondered if the idea was just to wait until the cars went away - not a good idea, in her opinion, as this street was quite unlike her own calm territory, and barely a moment went by when cars weren't zooming back and forth like hyperactive kittens. Tara stifled a sigh at the thought of kittens, but was surprised out of her melancholy thoughts when a little box fixed to the nearest lamp-post began emitting a sound like the dinner-making thing in Joyce's kitchen, the cars stopped, and the waiting people marched safely across the street.
Tara was so surprised by the sudden reversal of behaviours that she sat dumbfounded until the beeping stopped, and the cars again took charge, moving back and forth as if people no longer concerned them. Edging closer to where a few people were again forming a group to wait at the kerb, Tara hazarded a guess that the noisy thing was telling the people when they were allowed to ignore the cars. She wondered idly how the noisy thing knew, then shelved the thought as the beeping started again, and the people moved. Keeping up with them, Tara crossed the street without any of the cars challenging her, and sat on the opposite pavement studying the mail shop.
It was quite small, and seemed to consist solely of one room, in which a handful of people behind a long desk talked to other people who came and went, fiddling with various bits of paper as they went. 'What is it with paper?' Tara wondered, then mentally shrugged and sidled up close to the glass wall separating the room from the street, searching within for any sign of Miss Kitty.
There didn't seem to be any, and she frowned in confusion. She glanced up at the sign again, wondering if she'd been mistaken, but no, it was definitely the same pattern the van had had. She wondered if there was more to the mail shop hidden away somewhere, and spotted a narrow alleyway to her left, on the other side of yet another shop. For want of anything better to do she walked towards it and peered in.
It was oddly quiet inside, after the bustle of the street - the people didn't seem to need anything from the alley, so it remained deserted. It was, however, home to many boxes and bins, several of which smelled rather bad. The was a vague food-ish edge to the smell, but Tara knew without a doubt that she'd turn up her nose at any food that had such an unpleasant odour attached to it. At home, one of the things that Buffy did was to gather up various small bags of left-over food and discarded bits and pieces, and remove them from the house before they started to smell. Tara wondered if these places had people who were less conscientious about cleaning up after themselves - or, given how Buffy often complained, perhaps these people merely had parents less insistent than Joyce and Giles.
There was, however, a street at the other end, and in the narrow opening of the alley Tara could see a door something like the garage door at home. That made sense - Giles and Joyce's cars needed the garage, a room of their own, so perhaps all cars did - vans too. Maybe the mail van had retreated to its garage, somewhere down there-
"Hey good-looking... new in town?"
Tara nearly jumped out of her fur at hearing the unfamiliar voice, and as she spun around searching for its source she felt her tail fluff up in a way it hadn't done for years, since she was herself a kitten, and practically everything was startling the first time it happened. Scanning the alley and finding it still empty, she eventually looked up. A green-eyed ginger cat was sitting on a ledge high on one wall, looking down at her, with a grin quirking her whiskers up on one side.
"Wh-who're y-you?" Tara managed, standing her ground even though what she really wanted to do was turn and run back out of the alley. 'Miss Kitty could be on the other side,' she told herself, 'I can't just run away and leave her.'
"Me?" the ginger cat said. "I'm Willow." She leaned forward and seemed to slink vertically down the wall onto the top of a bin, barely pausing to jump down to the ground. Tara could have managed such a feat of athleticism on her favourite tree, but she'd never have dared try it on an unfamiliar surface. 'Is this her place?' she wondered. 'Am I trespassing in her place?' She lowered her tail slightly, to seem less challenging.
"Let me guess," Willow said, sitting back down and licking a forepaw, idly cleaning her face with it, "you're all alone out here, and you've got no idea where is where and who is who. Am I right?"
"I-I... yes," Tara said hesitantly, "i-is this place yours? I-I just need to get to the street over there, that's all..."
"Hey, relax," Willow said, "you're fine. It's not exactly my place... let's say it's a place I know. I know lots of places, but I'd have a busy time if I went and decided they were all mine. You're not going to panic and run off, are you?"
"Of course not," Tara said quickly, omitting that it was a near thing.
"Good," Willow smiled, "it's been a slow day and I wouldn't mind some company. All the other cats around here and just scavengers, no fun to be around at all."
"Th-there's other cats around here?" Tara asked.
"You are new, aren't you? Here, c'mere, say hello." Willow got up and walked slowly towards Tara, ducking her head low to show she wasn't being aggressive. Tara took a tentative step forward, and sniffed near Willow's nose.
"See, that wasn't so hard, was it?" Willow said, while Tara quickly took a step back again and sat back down. "Relax, willya? Trust me, you don't need that tail with me." Tara glanced down self-consciously at her tail, still twice its usual size.
"Sorry," she said quietly, "you startled me."
"Yeah, I get that a lot," Willow shrugged amiably. "I'm Willow. Oh wait, I said that already, didn't I? Well, I was Willow then, and I still am now."
"I-I'm Tara," Tara replied when Willow paused for breath.
"Hi Tara. So you're what, stray? Runaway?"
"What? No!" Tara insisted once she realised what Willow was asking.
"Well you're not from around here," Willow pointed out, "I'd have seen you before, and you've got house cat written all over you."
"I'm looking for my sister," Tara explained, "she's lost and I have to find her. But, I don't know this place at all, I've really got no idea where she is..."
"No kidding?" Willow said, widening her eyes. "Then it's your lucky day, Tara. You come along with me, I know this town like the back of my paw."