Natalie Lambert paused, listening to the small, high-pitched sound to be repeated. She returned her attention to the door when her purse strap slipped off her shoulder and added its weight to the groceries and paperwork that were beginning to slip from her grasp in her haste to get out of the rain.
Natalie nearly dropped the keys that she was struggling to manipulate with two fingers as she looked around for the source of the cry. She thought she saw a slight movement and a pinpoint of reflected light. Her load shifted, and she quickly turned the key in the lock and pushed the door open. Several items cascaded to the floor of her apartment entryway, including a set of papers, which scattered wildly, and a grocery bag which, from the sickening crack she heard, Natalie deduced to have contained the eggs.
"Well, what do you want?" Natalie demanded of the darkness, setting the rest of her burden on the floor. She turned in time to see one kitten eye and one kitten ear slipping back into the shadows at the corner of her building.
"It's wet out, you know," she said gently as she began slow, measured steps toward the creature.
The kitten poked its head around the corner again and tilted it cockily at Natalie. She took another step closer and it batted one gray paw in her direction.
"Why don't you come here?" Natalie asked gently, holding out a hand so her fingers were less than a meter from the kitten's nose. It flinched away, the slowly crept toward her again. "That's right. Don't be afraid Come here, baby. You don't want to spend the night outside in this storm."
The kitten was almost close enough to touch, almost close enough to grab, when rain suddenly dropped from Natalie's fingers, into a puddle, and into the kitten's eye. It shrieked and bolted.
Natalie followed quickly, trying not to frighten the creature further, but trying to keep it in sight. They rounded the back of the neighboring building and stopped.
"Pss-pss-pss-pss-pss," Natalie called, advancing slowly in the pitch black left by the absence of street lights.
Natalie turned toward the sound and tried clicking her tongue softly. "Come here, little one. It's too cold for you here. ....And for me too," she added quietly, pulling her now-soaking coat closer around her. She realized that she had caught up to the kitten when it dashed from beside her left foot and away down the alley again.
"Why am I doing this?" Natalie muttered as she broke into a run. She stopped for a second as she felt her foot become immersed to the ankle in a puddle, then continued her quest. New shoes, she thought grimly. She hurried to the last place she had seen movement
"Pss-pss-pss-pss-pss," she half-whispered, half-whistled again.
"Look," Natalie explained matter-of-factly, "I'm only going to do this for a couple of more minutes, kitten. If you want a warm place to sleep, you're going to have to come with me." All the while, she was getting closer. She wiped the rain out of her eyes and smoothed her dripping hair out of her face, then went into slow motion. Stooping toward the kitten fluidly, she reached out slowly, then pounced in one hurried movement.
The kitten scampered behind a group of trash cans, and she felt her stockings run from the point where her knee had impacted the pavement in what promised to be a bright, swollen bruise later.
"Okay. You've got one last chance, kitten." Natalie made kissing noises as she approached the trash cans. She got to her knees and peered between the cans. She immediately averted her eyes to above its head as she saw the kitten looking at here. Don't set yourself up as a challenge or a threat, she reminded herself. She shifted her position slightly, making soothing sounds all the while. Then her hand shot out and in a split second, she had a squirming, mewing, hissing kitten in that hand.
She held it up for a moment, looking sympathetically at the forlorn little ball of damp fur. Its mouth was wide open in loud vocal protest, as though it wanted to alert the entire neighborhood of this treatment and its displeasing distance from the safe ground. Its little tail, no more than three inches long, stood straight up in the air, and its feet were splayed out in all directions, when they weren't trying to claw its way out of captivity.
"I agree," Natalie said, "It's nasty out. Let's get inside and dry off." She tucked the kitten into her coat pocket, pulled the coat to the front of her so she could keep a firm hold on the kitten, and hurried toward her apartment just as it began to rain harder. Natalie was surprised to find that she had chased the kitten a good four blocks, a distance which her injured knee was beginning to protest covering again. She was about to turn up the alley next to her building when another sound pierced the night.
Nick? Natalie thought in puzzlement. Why would he be here? And why would he sound so frantic? She was drawing breath to call back when he shouted again.
"NATALIE?!??" He was still out of sight.
"Nick?" She hurried toward her apartment, concerned with what problem could have brought him here. "You don't have to wake the whole--" She never saw him until he was there, his iron-like fingers gripping her shoulders.
"Natalie, are you all right? What happened?" He was scanning her appearance head to toe with wide, worry-filled eyes, and seemed, if that were possible, to be becoming even more frantic.
"Nick, I'm fine," Natalie reassured, then frowned, perplexed by Nick's behavior.
"Are you sure you're okay?" he demanded, walking her quickly toward her door.
"I'm fine, Nick. I tripped looking for this." She pulled away from Nick and held up a section of her coat from which peeked a small head.
Mew, the kitten said pitifully, then hissed again. Nick almost jumped.
"It doesn't seem to like me," he said, looking guardedly at the creature.
"Oh, he's just scared."
"Natalie, are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine, Nick! Why would you be .... so .... worried ...... Oh." Natalie's question trailed off as they arrived at her door, still open with a pile of wet paperwork and groceries laying haphazardly in the entryway. "I guess this does look a little--"
"Suspicious?" Nick offered as he turned the lights on.
Natalie grinned, then, in glancing at the kitten, noticed her own mud-spattered, bedraggled appearance. Her left shoe was dark brown from muddy water. Her cream colored skirt and hose (what was left of the latter, at least) were also spotted dark with brown. She was dripping water from every piece of clothing and every strand of hair, and what looked like the proverbial drowned rat was peering from her coat pocket. "My, my, my. I am something of a sight."
Mew, the kitten concurred loudly.
"Do you see why I almost called the police?" Nick began to gather the things from the floor and closed the door behind them. "Promise me something? Don't ever scare me like that again, okay?"
"I'm not making any promise about that," Natalie responded wryly. "I seriously doubt that having someone be concerned will make me any less accident-prone than I've always been. In college they used to call me Calamity Lambert."
Nick laughed at that as he set some of the groceries on the kitchen counter. When he turned, she was struggling out of her wet coat while trying to keep her hold on one very loud, very wet, very squirmy kitten. Nick helped her untangle the coat and she kicked off her shoes as she headed for the bathroom. "Just dump the coat on the floor, Nick." Her tone changed as she addressed the mewing kitten. "And you need a bath. Yes, you do." She turned the water in the bathroom sink on to warm and got out some shampoo. As she stuck the kitten's scrawny little body under the water, it shrieked in protest. "Now, to find out what you really look like," Nat commented, scrubbing the grimy kitten. "I would worry about getting you wet, but you're already soaking. Well, look at that. You have little white paws instead of gray ones. But most of the rest of you is gray. You might actually turn in to a real cat after all instead of a rat, you know that?"
"Hey, Nick, what were you dropping by for, anyway?" she called as she rubbed the kitten dry.
"Just to talk, I guess. And I hadn't really seen your place yet, either."
"And I guess I'm not showing it off especially well, am I? Nick waved a hand dismissively as Nat poked her head around the doorframe. "Tell you what. If you'll put water in the kettle and turn on the stove, I'll give you the whole three and a half room grand tour as soon as I get dry. Okay?" She popped back into the bathroom before he really answered.
A little over five minutes later when Natalie emerged from her shower, warmer and clad in a fluffy, dry robe, with wet hair still dripping and a kitten peering curiously around her heels, the kettle was whistling.
"Nick?" Natalie looked around, but he seemed to have left. "Look at what we did, kitten. We scared him off again."
"So how's the job search coming?" Natalie asked, shifting the phone as she did paperwork.
"It's okay. I've got a couple of leads."
"Good. I do too. Why don't you come and see me and pick them up?"
"Why don't you come by my place?"
"Why don't you come by my place?" Nat countered. "Say, after work?"
"You just want to poke and prod me and take more samples," Nick accused.
"Well, yeah, that too. But I always come to your place and you ought to see my new place. Anyway, you have no furniture, and you may not need to eat, but I do, so unless you have some food....." Natalie paused. Silence. "I thought so. Eight thirty or so then?" she asked, then gave him her new address.
Natalie swung the door open grandly. "Welcome to my new home," she announced, ushering Nick inside with a grin.
"It's red," he said, staring at the walls. "Almost orange, even."
"Well, the old place didn't take cats, and this is bigger and closer to work. I know you didn't really look around much in the two minutes you were there, but the other apartment was really too small. It had gotten crowded, and with Sydney....well.... Isn't that right, Sydney?" She smiled at the cat who was making figure eights around Nick's ankles.
"Sydney? Do you mean you finally named this cat?"
"Hey, it's only been two months," Natalie protested. "If he's going to keep a name his entire life, it ought to be a good name. Right, Sydney?"
"So, why 'Sydney'?" Nick asked.
Natalie shrugged. "Because that's his name."
"Well, is he named for something?"
Natalie shook her head.
"A person? Sydney, Australia?"
"Nick, do you want me to make something up? It's just his name. It suits him."
"I don't know. It just does. I woke up one morning and it was like he looked at me to say, 'My name is Sydney.' Oh, and don't you look all skeptical."
"Sydney, huh?" Nick knelt to pet the cat as Natalie retrieved her medical bag. It was near the kitchen and as soon as she got within a meter of that room, Sydney darted toward her, meowing piteously.
"He's grown a lot," Nick observed as he stood back up. "But he's scrawny. Don't you ever feed him?"
"He's a kitten, Nick. Kittens look like this. And he's not scrawny; he's gangly." Natalie grinned mischievously. "I'll bet you were gangly once, too."
"I was," Nick admitted. "They gave me a sword to master that was as big as I was."
Natalie blinked, glancing at him from her sample-taking. "I keep thinking I'm used to this, but things like routine sword training still seem to surprise me." Nick shrugged. "Anyway, about the jobs. I remembered you having mentioned that you'd done some police work before and wanted to tell you that I just saw a fairly sizable list of openings on the Toronto Metro force. I think a lot of officers just retired," she added at his questioning look. She double checked the blood and tissue samples she had taken, and closed her bag. "All done."
"I'll look into the police jobs. Thanks."
"Oh, and I think I saw one listed as being at the 27th Precinct. You may want to focus on that one; the captain is quite good."
Nick was staring at Natalie, a slight smile on his face. She frowned at him, glanced behind her, then looked back at him. "What?" she asked, uncomfortable with the attention.
"I was just wondering: Am I just another of the strays you've collected and rescued, like Sydney here?"
Natalie swatted at his arm. "Okay. We're going to start with the self esteem right here." She looked at him, her eyes wide and serious, "You--"
Nick impulsively hugged her, almost knocking the wind out of her. By the time he let go, seconds later, Natalie had managed somehow to reduce the visibility of furious blush that had assailed her. She froze for the tiniest of instants as she caught an indefinable, almost worshipful look about his eyes, much like the one he'd worn as he asked if she was collecting him.
Natalie caught her breath quickly and continued where she'd left off. "You are not a stray. You may be temporarily misplaced, but you are a person."
Nick looked away, his expression growing dark. "No I'm not, Natalie. You have to remember that."
"I don't want to hear that. You. Are. A. Person. What you just did--hugging me? That was a very human thing to do. You're very much a person, Nick, and you can be human. Okay?"
Nick looked up at her. "We'll see."
He looked in danger of getting That Look on his face again and Natalie quickly interjected, "Why don't we rent a movie? Maybe a cop movie so you can brush up on your police moves? What do you think?"
"A movie? That sounds awfully ..... normal."
"Well, then all the more reason to do it." She took his sleeve and began pulling him toward the door. "We'll be back, Syd. If you're lucky we might even find a treat for you."
As the door closed behind them Sydney meowed once then walked with some dignity to the new furniture he wasn't supposed to sit on and made himself at home.