TITLE: Ogden Nash Blues
AUTHOR: Anne Hedonia
RATING: PG-13 most of the time, NC-17 by the end.
PAIRING: Spike/Tara

SUMMARY: Written for the Spara Ficathon community on LiveJournal – my challenge requirements were kitten poker and humor. It gave me two ideas, and this is one of them. Spike has a gambling problem – it's not what you think.

DISCLAIMER: If I owned them, I'd flaunt it ceaselessly till you hated my guts.
TIMELINE/SPOILERS: Season 6-ish, some time in the area of "Older and Far Away/As You Were." Resides mostly in AU!Land.

FEEDBACK: Kept forever at annehedonia at comcast dot net

---------------

The trouble with a kitten is THAT
Eventually it becomes a CAT.

-- Ogden Nash

The first thing Tara noticed about Spike's crypt was that it smelled weird. And not good. And considering it was a crypt, this was saying something.

It occurred to her – suddenly, strangely – that it smelled like...her great-aunt's house.

Spike chose that moment to pop his head up from the lower level of his abode. "Glinda."

Tara jumped and hoped it didn't show too much. "Spike, hi." She moved to put her things down. Somehow, Spike had always made her a little nervous. Somehow, she always felt it was important not to let him know.

"Got my message, good." He clambered up the ladder.

"Yes, well, your 'message' didn't explain that much, so I don't really know what I'm here for." Tara hid a wry smile, recalling the wadded-then-re-flattened Bronze flier that'd been shoved in her doorjamb this morning, decorated on the back with Spike's haphazard scrawl. She briefly considered making a joke about his fancy stationery, but reconsidered just as quickly. Sometimes her jokes didn't go over.

"So what's the emergen—oh!" She turned and startled again, finding Spike already standing closer than expected. She wondered how hard it would be to put a bell on him. "Um...what's the problem?"

He studied her, hands on hips, like he was considering how to proceed. "Well, it's...somewhat of a...gambling problem," he said tentatively.

"Oh. So, you have a problem with gambling? Like gambling too much?"

"No, no...not like that..." Spike gave an impatient wave. Tara felt inexplicably like she'd failed a test, and then felt silly for feeling failed.

Spike paced a bit. "It's more of...a problem I'm having while I'm gambling."

Tara nodded uncertainly, waited.

Spike stretched the moment until he finally sighed extravagantly, rolling his eyes in defeat. "See, I've got this...lucky kitten..."

Tara's surprise almost got the better of her, but she managed to keep the smile down. "Lucky kitten?" she asked earnestly.

Spike nodded. "Yeah, see, one night, we were playin' at Clem's – the usual demon poker. I was down to fuck all, 'bout to lose my skin – maybe literally – but then Clem said he'd spot me this one kitten. And the minute she showed up, bang! – I had the greatest hand of my life, just when I needed it. Won the whole pot, and every pot after."

Tara nodded. "And you think the kitten was the reason?"

"Don't 'think', I know. Soon as she turned up, my luck changed, and it's never changed back. Been takin' her to every game since."

Tara nodded. "I see. So...there's some trouble with your kitten?" she ventured.

Spike looked grim. "Yeah. Thing is, after a while I didn't really want to let on to the others that I was still bringing her round. Hidin' her was easy enough at first but..." He sighed. "...that was 5 months ago."

Suddenly the smell in Spike's crypt made sense.

Tara finally noticed a cardboard box lid in the corner, filled haphazardly with some very used cat litter. In another corner she spied several open tins of cat food, many different brands, the majority old and barely touched and all collecting flies.

She smiled in realization, murmuring to herself: "The trouble with a kitten is that..."

Spike's eyebrow quirked. "Eh?"

"Nothing." Her smile showed she understood.

Spike scowled. "Right. So. Lulu. What do I do about her?"

Tara had to work triple hard not to smile this time. "Lulu?"

Spike pointed. Tara followed his arm to see a delicate grey tabby drifting into the room, looking like she owned the place.

-----

"Oh!" Tara moved immediately in the cat's direction. She knelt and gave it her hand to smell, then was soon stroking its head.

"Might wanna watch it, there." Spike cautioned. "She's not real friendly, lot of the time, and she definitely don't like bein' picked—"

Tara stood from her crouch, Lulu resting comfortably in her arms, and turned to him obliviously. "Hmm?"

"—last for the dodgeball team." Spike finished. He shook his head. "Well. How'd you like that?"

"She's very sweet," Tara enthused.

"Yeah. Well." Spike scuffed the floor a second, then took a businesslike air. "It's like this...if I want Lulu there to keep bringin' me luck, I gotta keep her alive, and uh...not sure the way I been doin' things is gonna get that done."

Tara gave him a look that somehow mixed reproval with forgiveness – he wasn't sure how a person could do that in just one face.

"Ain't like she ain't gettin' her licks in, though. Every time I try to take her anywhere, I get this for my trouble." He thrust one pale, muscled forearm into Tara's line of vision – angry red scratches and nicks decorated it, all in various stages of healing.

"What do you use to carry her?" Tara inquired.

Spike was taken aback. "You mean, in? Well...sometimes I...put her in a pillowcase."

Why on Earth did Tara keep smiling so damn much? He watched as she knelt to put the cat down, grabbed a nearby cat toy and began fluttering it over its head. "Mark Twain once said that if you carry a cat home by the tail you'll gain information that will be useful to you for the rest of your life."

Spike snorted. "You're fulla quotes tonight."

Tara didn't look up. "So you did hear me." She gave him just the slightest, coyest glance. "Before." She and her crooked grin went back to the cat, appearing to drop the topic.

Spike wasn't quite sure what to do with that look – teasing and Tara seemed highly unrelated, yet there they were.

Something about it provoked him.

"Well, whatever I carry her in, it's gotta be low profile. I've heard all I want to hear from those lowlifes 'bout my bringin' her. Last week Ogmar called it my security pussy."

Ah, there it was, a quick hot blush over Tara's features. Spike felt more in control.

He adopted the proper contrite air. "Oh. Sorry, luv."

Tara didn't look up, just continued to wave the cat toy. "No problem here. Consider your audience."

Spike almost physically startled. He angled for a better look at her face. She gave it to him while his peaked eyebrow and lazy grin gave her surprised props. She grinned a little back before she looked away.

-----

If she could just get her heart to stop pounding, Tara could decide if she felt less nervous or more at this point. Somehow seeing the Big Bad flummoxed by a cat had made her bolder. She hadn't taken his bait, and she'd come out a winner for it. She stifled a giggle at her own daring.

She sat cross-legged on the floor to take the cat into her lap and began carefully sifting through its fur. "You know, maybe you don't actually need to bring the cat. To keep your luck, I mean. Maybe you could just take along something from the cat, like some fur."

"Trust me," said Spike, swatting at his black clothes, "I'm doing that anyway." He frowned. "And what if it ain't the fur's got the mojo in it? Nah, to be lucky I need the whole cat."

Oh. Tara felt her warm comfort level take a scary little deflation. But it was all right – he'd nixed the idea, but not in a mean way.

And soon he was there, surprising her again by kneeling right next to her, looking very concerned with her cat inspection. "What?"

"Oh, um...Did you know she has fleas?"

"No." He squirmed a bit. "They don't bite me, what does it matter?"

Tara was affronted. "They bite her. Plus they can lead to tapeworms. And I don't like this bump on her leg, it might be infected. Has she had her shots?"

Spike scowled flatly. "Whadda you think?"

"She needs a checkup." Tara went to hand Lulu to Spike, who looked startled and put his hands out clumsily. As soon as he touched the cat she yowled and scrambled off in a flurry of fur and claws. Tara turned pink and expected an outburst; she was surprised to find Spike looking more embarrassed than she.

She didn't know why, but the moment stayed there until it was several.

"I know a vet's office that stays open well past sundown. I'll make an appointment," she said gently. "We need to keep the cat not just alive but well." She watched him curiously. "I mean, that is why you called me, right?"

Spike seemed just then to remember she was there. "Yeah." His lost look became a scowl. "Yeah. S'right." He stood again and looked off to where Lulu sat primly grooming herself, putting her fur back into that perfect order only she understood.

"Stupid cat."

---------------------

Several days later, Tara's pace through the cemetery was brisk, partly due to the fading daylight and the dangers it posed, and partly to get her to her nice, distracting destination sooner.

I'm doing better, her brain echoed, replaying weeks-old conversations. No spells for thirty-two days.

So...that was promising, right?

I, uh... might have ... kept one or, or two things. Sort of.

Unless it wasn't.

Her stomach fluttered. Don't think, walk faster. Ex complicated. Cat simple.

Although, cat in the hands of Spike wasn't necessarily. She tried to imagine what he'd been like at the vet's office. She thought of Lulu's little gray eyes and her perfect deadpan. One corner of her mouth curled upward.

The thought of the pair of them – their accidental comedy team – made her feel a little lighter.

A moment later she was pushing on the cool, heavy metal of Spike's front door. "Hello?"

A flat voice from within: "S'open."

"So how'd it go at the..." Her eyes adjusted to reveal Spike on one corner of his couch, looking sulky in front of his TV, one hand draped around a liquor bottle. At the extreme other end was Lulu...wearing a plastic neck cone.

Tara blinked. "What happened?"

"Don' wanna talk about it."

"Spike." Tara hustled to check on the cat. "If I'm going to help you take care of her then—"

"Oh, the cat." Spike flapped a hand carelessly in the cat's direction. "Wankers at the vet's talked me into gettin' her spayed."

Tara stopped, her eyebrows raised. "Oh."

Spike swirled the amber liquid in his near-empty bottle. "Almost didn't, because hey, what's wrong with havin' my own kitten factory? But then they talked about her going into heat, an' I thought about takin' care of 'em all till they were read to play with and I figured sod it."

Tara nodded, still processing, as she sat down on the floor in front of the couch. Lulu raised her head and welcomed her with a little cat chirp. Tara smiled and coaxed the cat onto her back, moving her fingers carefully near the small row of neat stitches.

"Told me it was gonna be quick operation, in and out the next day. They didn't tell me she was gonna look like that," Spike pointed accusingly. He huffed. "Coulda gone to a game tonight, but there's no way I'm totin' that along."

"Oh, I don't know..." Tara smiled. "I think she wears it well." Tara scratched Lulu carefully around the collar's base. "Didn't people wear big collars like this at some point during your day?"

Spike looked at her indulgently. "Few centuries before my day, actually."

Oh yeah – Elizabethan era, 1600's or so. She should have known that. Tara waited to feel embarrassed. But somehow, it didn't come.

Somehow, whatever was haunting Spike's eyes made her feel like he needed the comfort around here, instead of her.

"You made the right choice," she told him sincerely. She indicated Lulu, patting her head gently.

Spike caught her eye, and after a moment he smiled faintly, but not ungratefully. "That makes one," he sighed. He looked away again, lifted the bottle.

Tara felt something else should be said, but didn't know what. She opened her mouth to try...just as a purring Lulu stood and determined to rub against her head. The cat accomplished little besides whacking her clumsily with the cone, and steering herself crazily off course. Tara ended up laughing instead of talking.

Spike looked. On the couch, Lulu grumpily shook her fur back into place. Tara kept laughing. Spike looked like he wanted to join her, but didn't.

Tara rubbed her head bemusedly. "How long is the cone supposed to stay on?"

"Almost two weeks." Spike snorted. "Gonna forget how to play poker by then."

Tara smiled at him. "It's probably better, though. She needs some recuperating time, and cats don't like traveling much anyway." She watched Spike wield the television remote, flipping through the stations at a speed at which most people shuffled cards. "So what are we watching?" she asked.

Spike stopped flipping and turned to look at her. She didn't blame him. The question even surprised her, a little.

She smiled lopsidedly and shrugged. "My new roommate at the dorm is never there to talk to...and when she is I think she's weird. I don't know which I prefer. So mostly I just stay away."

Spike's face relaxed for the first time she'd seen all night. It took on that smirk she'd seen often, but not usually in conversation with her. "Other people suck," he agreed, returning to flipping.

Tara just chuckled. Spike stopped on "Will and Grace." They fell into a strange but companionable silence.

Tara watched him drain his current bottle, drop it to the floor with an unsteady clink!, then search the surrounding area for another. Something she knew occurred to her.

"Have you talked to Buffy lately?" she asked. She wasn't at all sure she should be inquiring.

Spike's dark face grew even darker. "Nope. An' I better get used to it..." He found another bottle just under his end table, yanked it up and uncorked it with a flourish. "I'm not likely to for a while."

Silence fell again. Tara reached behind her to pick up Lulu, carefully, soothing her very vocal protests until she was settled gently into her lap. "It can be nice to have a cat around the place, make it less lonely."

Spike wouldn't look at her just then. He nodded, set his jaw and started in on the new booze. Tara went back to watching TV.

--

When it wasn't distracted by the bright, loud TV show, Spike's foggy brain registered a few things. About Tara.

The question she'd asked was about his pain, obviously. She'd seen it. He hadn't offered any insights, and she'd respected it. It suddenly seemed obvious that he could have told her everything and felt no judgment, and that he could keep it to himself from here till doomsday and probably have the same result. But then, he probably wouldn't last that long not telling her – he could easily see himself giving in and spilling everything, just from the calm, patient way she was likely to listen.

He blinked.

Why hadn't he gotten to know Tara more before tonight?

---------------------

"Scratching box." Tara held up her present with a small smile. "As promised."

"Hey, brilliant!" Spike took the proffered box with an impressed air. "I'm much obliged." He gestured gallantly for her to enter, head bowed, tilting his face up at the last minute to reveal a rakish grin.

Tara blushed and entered. She was confused about two things.

First off, this Spike was so different from the Spike of yesterday that it was a little disconcerting. She was glad to see him looking better, but the unpredictability factor gave her pause. The second puzzler was that devilish look of his, although the look itself was not the puzzling part. She was aware Spike had not only had charm but knew how to wield it like a laser - that look probably slayed as many ladies as his fangs used to.

What she didn't understand was why it had just worked on her.

Just for a second, mind you, but it had. She could still feel her cheeks burning.

"How's it work?"

"What?" She looked up in surprise.

Spike was waggling the closed box in one hand. "This thing. How's she s'posed to use it?"

"Oh! That thing. Of course, that thing." She took it from him. She could feel him watching her intently and she hoped if she ignored this fact it'd go away. "You have to open it, of course..." she said, attempting to, but her first two tries went awry somehow. The third try made it; she pulled up the box's lid and extracted a small ziplock bag of something dried and oregano-like.

Spike's eyebrow nearly hit his hairline. "And what would that be? Smuggling, are we?"

Tara looked at him flatly. "It's catnip. You spread it on the cardboard thing inside so she wants to scratch it."

"Says you." His eyes were locked on her, and his grin was just this side of lascivious. "I think you're here to corrupt me." Tara understood for the first time how little he missed, and how quickly he added it up.

She hoped her smirk wielded more authority than she felt. "Someone's certainly feeling better."

Spike's smile softened, yielding the game for the time being. "Yeah, had a good day's sleep, got some things outta my system..." He turned and ambled toward the center of the crypt. "...just don't feel so serious today."

"Well, that's certainly nice." Tara let herself exhale, shakily put her bag on an end table. "Where's the patient?"

"Eh?"

"Lulu...where is she?"

"Oh," he shrugged. "'Round here somewhere, I expect."

Tara nodded uncertainly. "She's okay, right? I mean, with stitches and all, I was thinking you might..."

"You want anything?" Spike interrupted. He was rummaging in his mini-fridge. "I may have a soda here somewhere."

"Um, no." Tara's brow furrowed. "I'm just going to look around a bit, if that's okay."

Spike shrugged, not turning around.

Tara finally located Lulu in the lower part of the crypt, wedged under Spike's bed – the cone barely fit into the space, and clunked against the bed frame when she turned her head in response to Tara's call.

"Oh, poor little thing," she cooed. "Not feeling so good?" She wondered how the cat had even gotten down here.

A few minutes' coaxing and the cat was extracted, settling into Tara's arms with a low purr. Tara was distracted by Spike's attitude, but then wondered why it surprised her. He had openly told her his cat care skills weren't the greatest.

She was also distracted...by his bed. A little.

She turned to it almost apprehensively. It was large and looming and gothic. The four posters were so, um...imposing. Shadows cradled it, and the messily pulled up bedspread flowed over it, giving peeks of naked sheet beneath.

The words "monument to sex" came to mind.

Spike slept there, she thought. He lay down nightly – or daily – and became peaceful, still, vulnerable. She couldn't imagine it – she wondered what he looked like then. It made her stomach flutter inexplicably. He did...other things there. She wondered what he looked like then, too. The nervous fluttering flushed through her body. It seemed so personal, suddenly.

Her hand brushed something slippery on the cat's belly. She startled, and put the cat on the bed to look.

She discovered...Spike had put antibiotic ointment on the cat's stitches.

She settled the cat onto Spike's bed and climbed back up the ladder, more confused than before.

--

Just as Tara's head was appearing in the upper level, she heard Spike's voice from somewhere behind her: "Got a present for you, too."

"Really?" Tara was utterly taken aback. "What?"

"Found you the perfect roommate."

She looked around to see Spike standing next to... a life-sized, cardboard standee of Julia Roberts, in her "Pretty Woman" costume. The Richard Gere part had been disposed with – Julia held the tie of someone who was no longer there.

Tara just blinked.

"Just the thing, innit? Won't ever leave the house, so she's always at home to talk to, but she won't act weird. And she's a hot bird to boot." Spike scanned her face, and his grin became sheepish. "Video store was throwin' it out. Thought o' you."

Tara's brain boggled. It occurred to her that he had been paying attention to her last night, when she thought he was just drunk and wallowing. "That's..." the next bit surprised her in its sincerity "...really nice of you." Her smile widened, and she started to laugh.

His smile relaxed some, looking pleased. He shrugged. "Everybody needs company they can count on, don't they?"

A moment passed between them. Tara wondered if it surprised Spike as much as it did her.

"Wanna stay and watch TV?" Spike had either broken the moment or turned it up a notch, it was hard to say which.

Tara nodded, again surprised to be so pleased. "Yeah."

---------------------

Tara found herself visiting Spike more and more often.

Mostly to help with cat problems – how to keep the cat from acting this way or that, was this an okay thing for her to have or do, etc. He had stopped scoffing at her suggestions, and now listened to her advice so seriously that it was about a week and a half before she even thought to notice that she hadn't felt nervous around him in some time.

Tara sometimes thought Spike asked her over for things he could probably have handled himself, but then...sometimes she too came over for very little reason. Sometimes it was just because she liked the cat and looked forward to its uncomplicated affection, and sometimes the idea of company she knew – however odd – was better than spending the night alone or getting two and a half words from her roommate. It was probably good, because Spike and the cat weren't exactly friendly, and Tara gave it some of the petting and affection Spike couldn't seem to manage.

Which was another thing.

Spike's lack of cat instinct didn't add up to Tara. For starters, Spike was empathetic, instinctual, firmly on the side of the underdog. Any and or all of these qualities should be helping him out with a small, feral creature. But even more than that, Tara couldn't believe that all those years with Drusilla hadn't prepared him better. Sure, he wasn't much for patience, but when he put his mind to it, difficult, moody, beautiful creatures seemed to be his forte. Somehow winning the love of a cat didn't hold the caché that winning a crazy beautiful woman did.

Or that was her best guess, anyway.

--

William the Bloody, soulless murderer, feared and hated scourge of 19th century Europe, was cleaning a catbox.

And strangely, not feeling as de-fanged as he would have thought.

Tara had talked to him about how Lulu needed him, about how she couldn't do these things for herself, and had made cleaning up after her seem more like a gallant gesture than a chore.

He chuckled to himself. Clever bird, that one.

Tara praised Spike's successes and encouraged him where he needed more help, and – perhaps most importantly – never made him feel like she was expecting him to fuck up. Although there was certainly a sense that she'd never stand for his being flaky, she just acted like she knew that, despite anything he'd done in the past, there was no reason to doubt he'd be responsible now.

Somehow, her expecting it made it true.

His expression grew dark as he worked – it would have been nice if certain...other people could have adopted this tack, but...he shook his head, backed off from the abyss at the end of that thought. He stood and tossed his catbox scoop into its old-coffee-can storage place, where it landed with a clank. He foot-swept some errant grains of cat litter into a nearby drain in the floor, then picked up the paper bag of cat waste to take to the cemetery's dumpster.

For some reason Spike found his care for the cat leaking over into taking better care of himself and his things. Keeping the crypt tidier, taking more care in his appearance, keeping some nicer food around.

Of course it was for himself.

Who else would it be for?

------------------

Two weeks had passed. Lulu was now collar-free, and her stitches had healed.

And now Spike was standing in the doorway of Clem's apartment, stern eyes challenging anyone who dared make fun of his...cat carrier.

"Hey Spike!" Clem was all good-natured welcome. "Glad you could make it! We've missed you." He seemed to notice the carrier for the first time. "Can I take that for you?"

Spike couldn't help but smile. "No, mate, I got it. Thanks anyway."

He moved toward the group assembled at Clem's Ikea-bought dining room table, staring daggers at the motley collection of demons. This did not prevent snickering the way Spike had hoped it would.

Spike wheeled on a small obese demon who looked something like a rotten tomato. "Got a problem, Nosniknej?"

Noz held up his stubby, fleshy arms – the movement caused an audible squish sound. "Not me, man," he swore. His shit-eating grin said otherwise.

Spike stalked over to his seat. "Yeah, whatever, you rotten bastard. Lose the ponytail, wouldja? Ain't you seen Queer Eye? Try joining the 21st century."

"Says Billy Idol," snickered a scaly demon. There was a round of guffaws.

"And I still get more tail than you've seen in 32 centuries." A burst of hooting from the group. Spike managed a grin. With Lulu safely stored beneath the table, the worst seemed over. "Deal me in, already."

Thus the poker game began, and continued for a good three minutes...before a plaintive yowling was heard.

Spike's jaw tightened. Bloody pain-in-the-arse cat. She was not going to ruin his evening. He'd wait it out, let her get tired and quit.

Another yowl, starting small and building in pitch and tooth-grinding tone and seeming to draw out forever. The assembled demons appeared on the verge of being highly entertained.

Spike refocused on the dealer, a demon that looked like a winged pile of mucus. "Hel-LO?" He elbowed him out of its grinning reverie. "I said gimme two."

Bets were made, cards were revealed. Spike was the winner. Before he could get cocky, Lulu let out a howl that sounded like a dozen guitar strings being stretched between two speeding, oppositely-aimed Mack trucks.

"Oh for fuck's sake..." Spike ducked down and fumbled violently below the table. The howling stopped, and a moment later Spike was upright again, picking up his hand. "Okay, whose turn is it to ante?"

Thump. Lulu had alighted next to him on the tabletop, blinking her grey eyes at those assembled.

"Hey kitty!" cooed Clem.

"Should I deal her in?" Snot Guy quipped.

Spike smiled humorlessly and maneuvered the cat back to the ground.

And she jumped back up.

Spike grabbed her and plopped her down.

And she jumped back up.

Plop down. Jump up.

Repeat 15 times.

Spike dropped his cards on the table and his forehead into one hand. The good humor of the others was fading in favor of flat, unimpressed looks.

"It's okay, just leave her up here," Clem said. "She can keep the pot company."

No sooner had he said that than a chorus of hisses erupted from the middle of the table.

Clem frowned. "Or not."

Lulu was swatting fiercely at the basket that was holding everyone's bets. A tomcat kitten was poking out from under the lid, swatting back and squeaking indignantly. Lulu landed her next blow and the basket tipped, giving a squadron of kittens just the out they'd been looking for. The whole pot would have been lost if not for the quick moves of one player...who happened to have eleven hands.

Spike fumed as the pot was cleared off to the side of the table somewhere. He glared sideways at Lulu, sitting dead center and calmly extending a leg skyward, cleaning her butt.

The dealer rolled his eyes. "Nice view, Spike."

"This from a bloke who looks like the world's biggest loogie." Spike tried to refocus on his cards, but despite his constant staring he couldn't seem to make any sense of them.

He was vaguely aware of Clem going to the snack area, grabbing some chicken pieces out of the KFC bucket, calling to Lulu with a coaxing lilt. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Lulu stop her grooming and miraculously jump from the table. The game resumed, but Spike's attention was divided between the cards and the quiet transaction going on between Clem and the cat: Clem making a little plate of chicken, putting it down on the floor, petting Lulu and praising her while she ate contentedly.

"Ooh, you like that, huh? Only the best for such a pretty girl..."

Spike somehow managed to win the hand.

He was very unhappy.

------------------

"Just a second!"

Tara muted the TV, puzzling about a knock on the door at this hour. She grabbed her robe and tossed it over her pajamas. She hoped it wasn't an emergency. Actually, she kind of hoped it might be someone particular...but that was silly. Silly thing to be hoping for. She'd never shown him where she lived. And why would he...there was no reason tonight. He just wouldn't. Would he?

She opened the door.

He would.

"'Lo," Spike muttered sullenly, glaring out from beneath his brows. He held the cat carrier out from his body, as though he might catch something from it. "I was just...I mean..." He sighed. "Can I come in?"

"Yes, of course. Come in." She stepped aside. She felt dumb for being so happily excited. She saw Spike all the time, and right now he was clearly in a mood. And yet that didn't change things. She shook her head impatiently.

Spike put the carrier on the floor. The moment he stepped away from it Lulu made a sound, like a whine was approaching. Tara actually startled at how quickly Spike flew back to open the door, flinging the little wire part so that it clanged rudely against the plastic sides. He then turned and flopped onto her bed, laying back with a huff of purest disgust.

Tara just stood and watched him a moment. "Okay..." she said finally, "...tell me everything." She felt a flash of guilt. "Was the carrier a bad idea?"

Spike chuckled tiredly. "No love, carrier was fine. Only thing that really worked all evening."

Lulu had approached and was winding around Tara's ankles. Tara bent to pet her. "Did your luck run out?"

Spike shook his head, lolling it back and forth against the bedspread. "Nope. Did fine."

Tara's brow furrowed. Spike raised his head to look at the question in her face. An angry sigh and his head flopped back, then his own face scrunched with the storm of his oncoming thoughts.

He shot up to a sitting position, pointing accusingly at Tara's ankles. "Why does she like everyone but me?"

Tara blinked in surprise. Spike was just getting warmed up. "I give her food, and a place to live, and everything she needs, and she won't bloody let me go near her. Why does she have to...go outside our little relationship for affection? What's wrong with me?" His face held not only anger but real pain, and Tara was amazed.

"Oh, Spike, nothing..." She approached quickly and sat down next to him, reflecting that even for Sunnydale this was one of the more bizarre conversations she'd ever had. "It's just that...well, cats have their own way of doing things, and you just sort of have to follow their rules..."

Spike snorted softly, stared down through his knees.

"You know, you have to sort of...move slowly, and...not scare them." She brightened. "Hey, this proves you're still scary."

Spike smiled a little more genuinely at that. Tara was encouraged. "You just move awfully fast sometimes, and you're very...powerful..."

Tara felt a sudden flash of alarm at having admitted she thought that. Spike's face gave away little, although his eyebrows did move the slightest bit upward.

"I think the cat can just tell," she said, surrendering to honesty. "I mean, you're a supernatural being. You're the Big Bad..." She fished for a way to phrase things that left out his murderous past – didn't seem like the time to bring it up. "You've...lived for over a hundred years, and you did it by fighting for the privilege, by beating anything that might take that away." There, that seemed good, if the softening in Spike's eyes was any indication. She felt warmed. "That's reason for anyone to be intimidated by you," she finished gently. "Much less a teeny little animal."

Spike tilted his head to look at her; his expression held a strange need. "Do I scare you?"

Oh. Tara's heart raced a little. "Well..." She wasn't sure what answer would please him. "You used to," she admitted shyly. "You were just so...speedy." She laughed a little, and he did too, with his eyes. "And intense. Demanding, sort of. You were like..." She fished for a word: "...electricity."

Her mouth felt dry – he still was.

Spike was looking at her in a way she couldn't read, a way she'd never seen. She floundered for the next step. "Um...you want me to teach you to pet her?"

Spike's eyes widened and he chuckled, looked down again with a rueful little sigh. "That's where I need to start, eh? Remedial cat-petting lessons?"

"No, it's not that..." said Tara earnestly, "...it just takes some practice for some people. You need to be gentle, like this..." Before she could think what she was doing, she'd reached out to graze Spike's neck lightly with her fingernails.

Spike froze, completely. He seemed like iron suddenly, an impulsively charged form of iron with a thousand possibilities under his skin. She had no idea which one her touch might illicit, but she suddenly knew that's what it could do. She felt lost, plunged into a world that consisted only of the tiny pads of her fingers, and the sensory explosion of their movement on him.

She forced herself to stop, wrenching her attention away, and found her hand back in her lap without really knowing how it got there. The silence between them was such an uncharted land that all bets seemed off, and Tara found herself asking exactly what she wanted to know.

"Anyone who could get along with Drusilla could understand a cat," she said quietly. "I don't know why I'm so sure of that, but I am." She risked a glance at him. "Why isn't that happening here?"

Spike registered no surprise at the question. He closed his eyes slowly, then reopened them to stare into the middle distance. He looked bleak.

And Tara silently realized that from here on in, they weren't really talking about cats.

"I think I've just had enough," he said quietly. "I mean...just got done with Buffy and...no matter what I gave, didn't seem to mean anything." In his melancholy he didn't seem to register that he hadn't actually told her about the thing with Buffy, but hell...she wouldn't be surprised if he'd just figured out himself that she knew.

He turned his face to her, and she inhaled softly: so much need there, such desperation to be heard.

"I mean, wasn't just not enough – it didn't mean anything, you know?" He seemed almost frantic. "Just slid off everyone's outsides and fell off the world, apparently. Like I'd never done anything..." He looked away and his eyes danced, keenly following some scene in his head. "Hundred years with Dru and she still prances off with some drippy demon..."

Tara didn't know what that meant, but trusted that Spike did.

She watched him smile in faint, ironic realization. "Maybe I just decided I was done with 'difficult' females. Maybe I just decided they're not worth the trouble. Bloody ungrateful bitches, the lot of 'em..." His face clenched again, damming back the anger. "I want a girl who'll meet me halfway for once in my bloody life, is that so much to ask?"

"No," Tara said gently. "That's actually the way it's supposed to work."

He shook his head determinedly. "I don't care what people think I am, or even what I am, I've got a lot to offer. I know that."

Tara realized she knew it too.

The moment sat still.

Finally Spike looked down the bed, to where Lulu had curled into a comfortable, self-sufficient ball.

"It's completely obvious, innit?" he said quietly. "The parallels between pleasing a cat and pleasing a woman."

Tara wasn't sure what the moment would lead to. Spike's face looked tired and soft.

She watched him begin, deliberately, to spend his attention.

He moved himself carefully down the bed toward where Lulu lay, easing himself beside her, his movements so smooth and soundless Tara thought for a second her ears had ceased to function. He raised a careful hand toward her, pulled it back a bit when she tensed, then forward some more – a delicate, patient dance of advance and retreat. It was only a few mesmerizing, liquid moments before he was able to touch the cat gently on the head, stroking her softly. A moment of that, then Spike's fingers did a gentle dance in the cat's fur, working their way down her spine, never too fast, never too rough...and never too timid.

The cat began purring despite itself.

She stood and stretched in that Halloween-cat way, arching into his hand. Spike began whole-handed strokes down the cat's head and back, his fingers pouring over the small brow and little flattened ears like swift, strong water. Surprisingly, Lulu didn't startle; instead the cats' eyes closed, squeezed a bit in satisfaction. Spike peered at her carefully, smiling a little, and moved his attention to strategic areas – caressing the little bald spots in front of the ears, fingers stroking along the furrow between the shoulders, moving down, strong and knowing, to the base of the tail. Lulu's purring ratcheted louder, with happy little hitches in it. She leaned her shoulders just a little; Spike adjusted where he was sitting, though Tara didn't understand why right away. A moment later the cat moved from relaxed to utter surrender, rolling with a contented flop onto her back and directly into Spike's lap, which he had put directly into her path. She lolled wantonly, offering up her belly, purring like she could now die happy.

Tara was so turned on she couldn't move.

Spike looked down at his little accomplishment, chuckling and smiling. Then he looked back and saw Tara's face, and his expression grew serious.

In a really, really sexy sort of way.

Spike saw everything, she remembered. Added it up.

And he was now radiating a kind of hunger that Tara realized she wanted very much to feed.

Oh, God. What was she doing?

And there it was, instantly on his face – he'd seen her uncertainty, too. He seemed to register it as quickly as she'd felt it. He turned away just a bit and adjusted how he was sitting with a small wince, jostling the purring bundle in his lap. In a jolting awareness, Tara suddenly realized the probable reason he needed to adjust how he was sitting and her heart raced triple time. ohGodverynewterritory!ohGodohGodohGodohGodohGod...

And in an instant Spike was rising, his back to her. "Better go, eh?" His voice was ten miles of bad road. He picked up the cat and coaxed her back in the carrier as quickly as he could manage. Tara didn't want him going like this, not thinking he was rejected, she had to say something, but she could hardly make her brain work...oh God.

He was almost at the door, his blond head held low.

"Spike!" she called, too loudly.

He stopped and turned, but just halfway. "Yes, pet?" Oh God, she wanted to soothe everything she heard in his tone.

She blurted the first thing she could force out: "I don't know what I'd do without you."

She wasn't sure, but she thought she might need to be horrified soon.

Even though it was true. Especially because it was true. When had it become true?

He turned to face her a bit more fully. His face was wary, hopeful, sad, amused, inscrutable.

He spoke only when he was almost out the door, turning to glimpse her through the space before it closed.

"I do," he said. "You'd thrive."

---------------

Okay, what exactly the hell had he done?

Spike was spending the morning in a rousing session of pacing – after a night of stumbling home and drinking till he fell asleep like the dead – wondering what exactly had gone on last night, and where things now stood.

His mind's eye tortured him with images of how he must have looked before he'd left, a situation that was keeping his chest filled with hyperactive bees. Zero self-esteem much? Dear God, he'd been a mopey, pathetic wretch. He'd done a fucking Morrissey impression. He'd acted like Sylvia bloody Plath without her meds.

But for Chrissakes, that look she'd given him – so much more than he could ever have hoped for, and her a bloody dyke and all – how could he have seen that coming? Well, yeah, he'd sensed a thing or two between them, once or twice, but hello? DYKE? He wasn't supposed to depend on those little moments! He was supposed to chalk them up as anomalies and go back to keeping it in his pants. And then the sting of her practically taking it all back in the next look...it was a wonder he hadn't had a bloody stroke, dead or not. The moment had taken something...glorious, dumped it squarely into his lap then snatched it away, all in a hummingbird's heartbeat. It was more than a bloke should be expected to stand. Little wonder he'd felt so at sea, lost confidence so fast.

Although, he considered, flailing frantically for a positive thought, he wouldn't take back what he said about her. Thriving, that is. With him or without him, with or without anyone...he'd seen how she'd handled Red. He liked how she handled him. He grinned at all the other ways he'd like to have her handle him. He chuckled – seemed a mite sacrilegious thinking things like that about Tara, but then...she was a woman like any other, wasn't she? Hell...just the thought of her as a "woman" made him so hot he shuddered outright.

She was firm yet gentle, strong yet bending. Never losing track of herself, or if she did he couldn't detect it. Tara'd never be anything but beautiful, strong, quietly growing.

And...here.

Bloody hell, she was here!

There she was in the doorway to the crypt – it was nearly dark outside, where had the day gone? – holding the door open just enough to let herself in.

Spike found himself so nervous he could barely make his mouth move. "H'lo, pet," he managed finally.

"Um...hi." A smile flitted across her face. "I was just um, checking...on Lulu," she said improbably. "Cause last night was, you know, her first night out in a while, and I wanted to see how, um, she was..."

"Yeah, yeah, absolutely..." Spike was grateful for a reason to look away, to check the floor and other parts of the crypt, gaze at something besides her face, which was causing him all kinds of reactions that weren't helpful. "Don't know where she's got to just now..."

"It's okay, I can do the looking..." She came down the stairs and her face went behind a curtain of hair. "You don't have to go to any trouble, you know, if you're busy..."

Spike snorted. "Yeah, busy. Runnin' the world, I am."

Tara's face reappeared at that, with a shy smile that said she was amused, wished he wouldn't put himself down, had slipped into their old comfort zone for just a split second. He cherished it before it skittered away, before his own weirdness engulfed him again.

"She's been spendin' a lot of time over in this corner, behind the TV..." Spike started for the area, protecting himself with renewed focus. He knew about Lulu, suddenly – where she was lately and where she wasn't, like the knowledge had been downloaded wholesale into his brain, like it'd always been there but hadn't been activated till...last night. The episode flooded through his brain again, igniting even more nervous weakness in his limbs. Christ, get a grip.

They spent about five minutes checking the places she might be, Spike giving occasional, absent instructions about where else to look. He was putting a knee on the couch and leaning to look over the back – no cat – when he stood back up and startled to find Tara right behind him. Something apparently struck her funny about that, but she didn't explain.

Awkwardness soon reigned – most of the room had been exhausted. Spike had no idea what they'd do without their search.

"Could she be downstairs?" Tara asked finally.

"Yeah, s'pose she could. Lemme check."

"Oh, that's okay, I can..."

Spike and Tara turned as one to head for the ladder, but neither made it. Their swinging, forgotten hands bumped mid-air, a gentle brush of wrist against knuckle.

And everything ignited.

The world became a blur of his hand clamping firmly around that wrist, pulling while feeling himself pulled, hands past his rib cage, wrapping arms around her back, long soft hair in his face, lips colliding, yielding, demanding, devouring.

Oh dear God in heaven.

If there even was one.

Although Spike counted this as the first bit of evidence.

So soft. She was nothing but softness. Comfort defined. Silky limbs and hair and warm breasts against his hard chest and lips he was suddenly afraid he might bruise with his clumsy need. He was just a brute, after all, a reckless thing, but then...she was just a mortal, a fragile girl not a fourth his age, so hard to remember when she felt so important, so overwhelming, like a being infinitely more powerful than he.

And she was laughing.

Against his mouth. In a good way. In a quiet, overjoyed kind of way. Spike was happy, but confused. Was kissing funny? He suddenly felt like he'd never done it before, like an alien who'd just landed.

He pulled back; her eyes were shining and brimming. "Pet, what did I...are you..."

She shook her head, kept smiling and gently pulled his forehead against hers. Still soft. Bloody, bloody hell.

"I'm just...I guess I'm relieved," she said. Her laugh was shaky. "That I did it. That I didn't chicken out."

Spike was a mite floored that chickening out could be possible with him. But he smiled too. "Thought you said I didn't scare you."

"You don't," she said wryly. She stroked his face. "This does. A little." Her eyes searched his, hoping he'd understand, and the sheer affection there made Spike's heart swell to the point of bursting.

He marveled at her, soaked in her beauty. "But you did it."

She nodded. "I did."

He grinned and prepared to make An Understatement: "I'm not your usual gig, am I?"

Tara barked out a heartfelt, teary laugh that Spike loved. "No, no, you're not," she said, when she could speak again. "But...for some reason, it's more about the 'who' of you than the 'what' of you..." She smiled guiltily. "It's kind of always like that with me."

He was starting to get it, feeling her body up against his, and he pulled her closer with a gentle tug on her hips, a little snuggle-grind. "But there's nothing else to be done, is there? We're drawn. Inexorably." The truth of his words thrilled him. He could feel they were so. He'd never been so happy in his life.

This was Big. He'd fallen into something Big. Not the force-it-till-it-fits Big, but the Mutual Big. The right kind of Big.

He suddenly had all the faith in the world.

"We might have to go a little slow," Tara said reluctantly...but staring at his mouth all the while.

"We can go slow..." he whispered as he descended, his voice a husky ache, "...but you and I have got to go."

Neither of them noticed Lulu, tucked into a small nook way above their heads – way above where she'd ever climbed before, actually – looking over the whole scene inscrutably.

-------------

Tara had always been good with cats, but she was wondering when she'd actually become one.

Because she had.

Was it Spike, his influence on her over these last couple of months? He was so...prowly, and slinky, made for stealth and powerful seduction. Had her time with him affected her? Had it rubbed off?

Literally?

She giggled, a little breathless. She knew how to prowl now, too.

And she very much liked her prey.

Oh God, but he was beautiful.

Her effect on him amazed her. It was visceral, bodily, undeniable, and left her in awe. No one had ever responded to her presence the way he did. No one had ever been so in thrall at her touch, made such primal noises, such predatory faces. No one had ever taken the slightest gesture given him and returned the favor instantly and a thousandfold, till she couldn't breathe or speak or think, till her capacity to feel seemed exhausted and yet she kept surpassing its limits, time after time after time.

And yet he loved it when she took the lead, when she tried out her own "slinky" skills - they couldn't be half as potent as his, she felt sure, but he always succumbed readily. It had never been like that with Willow – their relationship had never been about power play, about these kinds of win-win games and even if it had...Willow would probably not have ceded the power often.

Speaking of playing...there was a toy in front of her.

Spike was trailing light fingers down her arm, a feeling she adored. It was hardening her bare nipples, raising delicious goosebumps in all the right places. She lifted a leg and rubbed it against his, feeling the coarse hair on his calf and thigh...and eventually aiming it so that it grazed his warm and flaccid cock.

"Oh," Spike chuckled satedly. "He's tired now, Pet."

"Is that so?" Tara raised an eyebrow in her best imitation of him. A moment later she was braced above him on her hands and knees, and he was watching her with amused interest. "I say he's never too tired for me."

Spike's features darkened pleasantly. "Is that so?"

Tara nodded with feline authority.

The taste of him was still a novelty as she kissed her way down his torso – such a uniquely male flavor and scent, she thought she'd never stop noting the difference. Still, she'd decided she somehow preferred groans in a lower register, and the astonished huff of his sighs when she put her lips to his skin. Men were so controlled in their reactions, compared to women – getting them this exposed seemed more of an accomplishment.

More of a thrill.

She had nearly reached her goal at this point, and was hovering her mouth near the part he'd said was too tired to respond.

She was already proving him wrong.

Taking him in her mouth now, laving her tongue under the ridge near the smooth top, up and down the underside, feeling all the different areas and textures.

Spike was feeling too, if the hard arch of his back and the hiss between his teeth could be trusted. It made her stomach twist with arousal so strong it was almost unbearable.

This hadn't been too hard to learn to do, yet it wasn't as simple as she'd expected. A man's cock had more variety to it than she knew, more secret places that needed attention, more potential to respond and cede to her this power she'd never known she craved.

She lapped at it, let her saliva coat it, rubbed her closed lips over the top. The ecstatic, barely-controlled thrash of his body gave her such a hot humming pleasure that she groaned deep in her throat, arched her nails into his hips where she held him.

Her prey was nearly hers.

She wrapped one hand around the base of him, and let the other drift between her own legs.

She was almost there by the time he was, too, by the time he was gasping and clutching the bed and her head and she was taking the head of him as far back toward her throat as she could, letting his come bathe it until his body went still.

But there was no time to rest, apparently, because he was pulling her up the length of his body, over his face, finding the sweet spots of her pussy and licking at them so quickly and unerringly that her body jerked in surprise as well as pleasure. Now it was she that was crying out, becoming hoarse and untamed so quickly, grabbing the headposts like some romance novel heroine with her long hair just as tousled and wild as they always wrote about, and she laughed a little to think of it until her orgasm started pounding up her spine and she felt nothing worldly at all, just sweet, ecstatic peace.

When she could see him again he looked so completely conquered. And happy to be so. She drifted down into his arms, let him pet her.

She nestled against his chest. "Wasn't too tired," she murmured smugly.

"You inspired him," he answered, kissing the top of her head.

"You inspire me," she said, suddenly serious, large eyes taking him in.

He smiled and returned the look in that entranced way of his, fingers playing with the hair along the sides of her face, just as Lulu came jumping up on the bed, settling at their feet.

"Feeling's mutual, pet," he told Tara.

They slept.

All of them purred.

----

End.