Spike got them a cat.  A kitten, really, a ball of tortoise-shell fluff and paws, huge eyes that track over everything without really seeing anything at all.  Dawn was enchanted, cooing and playing with it, promising Spike good behavior for a year in thanks.  Willow was distrustful, claiming she needed more time to get over the trauma of Miss Kitty Fantastico running away.

Tara wished he’d gotten a dog.

“Problem, luscious?” 

Willow always bristled at the names he used for her, but Tara never minded.  Spike wasn’t mocking her and, well, she was much larger than the stick-thin women that surrounded them.  It bothered her, no matter how many times she told herself that a size six was not too fat, even though Willow was a size zero, so when Spike started calling her 'svelt' and 'goddess' she listened to how the names were always so—reverent.  That was the word.  Appreciative.  It was a wholly male response to the female form, but it flattered her all the same.

“Thought you’d like a cat.  What with havin’ the other one.”

He was leaning against the wall, ink-brush eyebrows drawn close and considering.  She caught the vague sense of hurt, and was surprised.  She hadn’t realized he wanted her approval.

“I like cats,” she told him tracing cobwebs in the air.  “But dogs are more fun.  You can take them on walks, and play fetch—and roll over.  You can’t make a cat roll over.  Um, unless the cat wants to, of course.”  She babbled like a school-girl around him, although thankfully stutter-free.  She didn’t stutter around him, anymore, ever.  Not since the RV ride from hell, when he’d screamed from sun-blisters.

“Really?  Thought all you birds were cat fanciers.  What with the similarities, an’ all.”  His mouth leered at her, but his eyes were amused and kind, encouraging her to share the joke.  It could have been a desire to keep his face palm-print-free—but that excuse had worn off weeks ago.  Even Willow had noticed how nice Spike acted towards Tara; of course, she thought it was because she’d threatened to take Dawn away if Spike messed up, and since Spike was a big poop-head that couldn’t ever be nice to Willow, Tara was the substitute to stay in Willow’s good graces.  Tara hadn’t the heart to tell her that in a showdown between Willow and Spike, Dawn would choose Spike every time.

“I like cats,” she repeated.  “I just like dogs more.”

“Well, then.”  Lighting his cigarette, Spike joined her leaning against the back-porch railing.  “Have to see if I can find one for you, then.  What kind you prefer—poodle?  Terrier?  Retrievers, they’re easy.”

“Is this legal, Spike?  Or—is the cat even healthy?  Been to a vet?”

Spike gave her an offended look.  “Like I’d give somethin’ to the ’bit that was gonna take sick an’ die?  Or make her sick?”

“But it’s not legal, is it?”  She knew Spike wouldn’t let anything near Dawn that could hurt her, but there was no harm in double-checking.  Spike expected it, really.  “Where’d you get the kitten, Spike?”

“None of your nosy business, miss Parker.  Got her, fair’n square.  Tell the vet you found her in a box somewhere, if you want, happens often enough.  Now, then, what kind of dog am I win—er, getting?”  He turned around so he was leaning back on his elbows, face animated and almost boyish.  “Can keep him down by the crypt, since I doubt Red’s gonna tolerate a puppy messin’ up her pretty things.  Bit too energetic for her tastes.  You’ll have to get the grub, though.  An’ Dawn can walk him during the day, after school?  Since I, well, can’t.  That whole ash-crispy thing.”

It occurred to her that Spike liked her.  That he was trying to make things comfortable for her down at his crypt: chairs and blankets for humans to use, light fixtures he’d bullied Xander into helping him rig, and he’d actually tried to clean.  Unsuccessfully, but Tara appreciated the attempt.  And it wasn’t just for Dawn, because he gave her the same hopeful puppy eyes, when there was no one else around to see—except Xander, oddly enough.

Something crystalized as Spike babbled on about the Labrador retriever he was going to get for them.  Spike was playing house.  Dawn was his to take care of, though whether it was as father or brother was irrelevant.  She, Tara, was being asked to play mother.

And she realized she wasn’t going to say no.