Mittens 

Barb Hill


Dedicated to Lady Catherine, My own furry little tranquilizer. And to all the cat-lovers in fandom.

Wednesday

Catherine sat at her desk poring over notes on the latest case she was investigating. The beginning of a slight headache throbbed dully in the back of her eyes. Suddenly, a tiny paw reached out to slap playfully at her hand. Laughing softly, she looked up to see Mittens, the officeís newest resident, sitting on the edge of her desk staring at her intently.

Mittens was a small cat -- the vet Catherine had taken her to called her delicate -- that had appeared out of nowhere, hungry and more than just a little bedraggled. She wasnít the least bit happy about having been unceremoniously dropped into the middle of a strange place with a bunch of what Catherine was sure the cat considered even stranger people.

Once some brave soul had found the courage to bathe her, they had discovered that the catís dingy fur was actually a tawny golden-brown with hints of black and apricot, luxuriously thick and long. They also learned that this fur was obviously a source of great pride to its owner since Mittens spent the better part of the day grooming it. She had four solid white paws, almost uniform in size, thus her name, and her whiskers were thick and long -- almost half as long as the cat herself.

The subject of the catís heritage and origin was popular among the office personnel. Though they couldnít seem to agree as to what kind of cat she was, most of them felt the poor creature had been undoubtedly dropped off because someone had decided they could not take care of her. Then again, there were those who believed she may simply have wandered away.

In true cat fashion, Mittens didnít seem to care the least about her parentage or her former domicile. As far as she was concerned, this office was home now and all the humans in it were Ďhers.í They fed her, petted her, when she allowed it, and gave her the run of the place. What more could a cat possibly ask for?

Though everyone seemed genuinely fond of the stray, there was one thing she did that drove them all crazy. It seemed that Mittens, for reasons only she knew, loved pens and pencils. She would roam from desk to desk, actually watching for someone to leave, hoping that they had generously left one lying about for her to play with. She seemed to have the idea that anything left lying about unattached to a human hand was fair game, and she lost no time in stalking it. Unfortunately, her idea of playing with them included a lot of batting about, usually until they were swatted under something to which she had no access. And while it was true that the cleaning crew generally found them, sooner or later, it still meant that some poor hard working soul was going to have to get up and get another pen or sharpen another pencil. And there was also a lot of grumbling about personal pens -- ones that had been a gift or that had cost them a bit more than they would admit -- coming up missing. Someone else might make a rather loud comment regarding scattered papers, paw prints and cat hair. And at least once a day someone would raise a fuss, threatening to put the cat back out on the street from which she had originally come. At those times, Mittens was not very popular, and being the smart cat that she was, she would choose that exact moment to find a quiet, out-of-the-way place to hide.

While she was friendly to the entire staff, Catherine had quickly become the catís favorite, for no matter how busy this particular human was, she always made a fuss over her whenever she demanded attention. She brought her treats and even went so far as to provide her with a wicker bed and a soft blanket to sleep on.

The only thing Catherine had given her that she didnít care much for was a collar that fit snugly around her neck. It smelled funny, and seemed to be trying its best to strangle her. Try as she might, Mittens couldnít get out of it. She would have to admit though, had she possessed the power of speech, that it did stop the nagging itching that had been bothering her, and for that alone she was willing to forgive the sweet smelling human for the torturous device she had inflicted upon her. Besides, Catherine really had gotten very good at scratching her ears.

When the rest of the office saw fit to comment on the catís preference to the assistant D.A.ís company and said D.A.ís propensity toward spoiling it, Catherine just smiled and shrugged her shoulders, saying that she had always been fond of cats. And while this was true, the fact that this particular cat had large, vivid blue eyes that gazed at her in an astonishingly familiar way only added to her attraction.

Catherine leaned back in her chair as Mittens gracefully maneuvered across her open briefcase and the pile of papers that cluttered the desk-top to curl up in her lap. Sighing softly, she proceeded to gently scratch the catís ears and chin as Mittenís hypnotic purring soothed her frazzled nerves, almost lulling her to sleep. She and the cat both jumped slightly when Joe Maxwell cleared his throat to gain his coworkerís attention. His boyishly handsome face broke into a wide grin as Catherine tried to regain her professional decorum, while Mittens simply yawned, stretched and chose to ignore him.

"You know, Radcliffe, if someone were to ask me which one of you was purring the loudest, Iíd have to say it was a toss up." Joe petted the top of the catís head and was rewarded with a small flick of her bushy tail by way of a feline thank you. Catherine glanced around the office guiltily, wondering if anyone else had seen her doze off.

"Donít worry, Cathy, I donít think anyone else noticed."

She shot him an exasperated look, almost daring him to say more. "Did you need something, Joe?" Joe nodded, wisely deciding to shelve the rest of his teasing remarks for a time when she was in a better mood.

"The briefs on the Stanley case. You find them yet?" From the gleam in his eyes, Catherine knew that her reprieve was probably short lived.

"Yes, here they are." She handed him a thick folder.

"Thanks. I knew I could count on you." He reached to scratch the catís ear again. "You know, that cat really likes you, Cathy."

"Mittens likes everyone, Joe. Sheís spoiled rotten and you know it."

Joe laughed. "Yeah, I know she is." He gave the cat one last pat. "Youíre something else, girl."

Catherine smiled to herself as Joe walked away. Mittens seemed to have worked a small miracle in the office. The friendly cat seemed to bring out the best in everyone. She did wonders for frazzled nerves and hurt feelings -- sort of like a furry tranquilizer.

Looking down into the blue eyes staring up at her, she was reminded of another pair of impossibly blue eyes she had not seen in a maddeningly long time -- too long! A week to be exact. As she unconsciously caressed the catís soft fur, Catherine found herself thinking about a broad muscular chest that was soft and silky to the touch, and also prone to purring contentedly when stroked and petted. Vincent. . . her own sexy, furry tranquilizer. He could calm her with a single touch, or just a word at times, yet at other times. . . Catherine shivered as she remembered those other times.

She felt her face grow warm and Catherine shook her head trying to rid herself of the erotic thoughts that suddenly inundated her. Vincent would not be returning until Friday. He and Pascal and several other able-bodied men were checking out the feasibility of expanding the communication pipes into some of the lower caves. They were not due back until Friday.

Catherine tingled with anticipation when she thought of the welcome she had planned for him. He had promised to spend the night since she would not have to work the next day, and she smiled wickedly to herself as she thought of all the delicious little ways she could get him to purr for her. In fact, he was in for the kind of homecoming that might even make him growl!

Reluctantly bringing her mind back to the present, Catherine shooed a disappointed cat from her lap and went back to work. She paused momentarily, her mind slow to refocus on the matter at hand. Her pen hovered over the paper, as Catherine absent-mindedly tapped it back in forth, causing it to wiggle invitingly -- especially for a cat with a pen fetish. Mittens reached out, curling her paw around the pen as if trying to grasp it. Catherine pulled the pen away, holding it against her chest almost protectively.

Blue eyes blinked slowly, gazing innocently, as though saying ĎI just want to play with it a while.í Catherine might have fallen for it, had it not been for the quick, subtle, almost lustful look she saw Mittens cast in the direction of the pen. Lifting the catís chin, she gazed at her sternly, gently admonishing her.

"Oh, no you donít, Mittens. This one is mine and it stays mine." She scratched the catís chin, softening her tone as she tried to strike a bargain with the furry, little thief "Iíll make a deal with you, though. You return all the good pens that have disappeared around here since you showed up -- including the somewhat expensive one Jenny gave me for my birthday -- and Iíll see about getting you a couple dozen cheap ones for your swatting pleasure. Do we have a deal?" Mittens gazed at her so intently that for a brief moment, Catherine thought she might actually be mulling over her offer.

"And one more thing -- you have to promise to leave pens and pencils on the desks where they belong. They are not, I repeat not playthings. Okay?" Catherine held out her hand as if waiting for Mittens to shake on the deal. Cocking her head slightly, the cat stared at her a few more moments before seeming to come to a decision. Giving her friend a soft, somewhat drawn out meow, she nuzzled Catherineís hand, then turned her back to her.

Catherine chuckled softly as realized that sheíd just been given the royal brush-off. By a cat no less. Turning her attention to the brief in front of her, she mumbled in disbelief, "I canít believe I just tried to bribe a cat -- and failed!"

*

Several hours later, Catherine was still busy at her desk, totally unaware of the lateness of the hour until a warm, furry body rubbed against her ankles demanding attention.

Stretching her stiff muscles, she was amazed to see that it was nine oíclock. At first glance she thought she was alone in the office. She could vaguely remember several coworkers saying good night, but couldnít remember Joe being one of them. A quick peek at his office confirmed her suspicions. He was still there, probably just as absorbed in paper work as she had been. She walked to his door, tapping lightly before sticking her head in.

"You planning on spending the night here, Joe?"

"Cathy! Why are you still here?"

"Same reason as you, Joe. I just love paperwork."

Joe laughed knowingly. "It does seem as if it never ends doesnít it?" Laying his pen down, Joe reached for his jacket. "I think Iíve had it for the night, though. Come on, Iíll ride down with you."

Stopping at her desk, Catherine found Mittens lying in the middle of her briefcase, obviously comfortable and quite at home.

"Sorry, Mittens, but Iím afraid youíll have to give up your bed." She gave her a gentle push and closed her briefcase. "You can have it back tomorrow. Good night. See you in the morning."

Mittens stood up and stretched, pinning Catherine with a look of indignation. She walked gracefully to the corner of the desk, turned her back and started to groom herself. Suddenly the cat shook her head and sneezed twice. The sound was soft, delicate as the cat herself. It sounded almost like a baby sneezing. Catherine scratched her chin and neck whispering, "Bless you."

They rode the elevator in silence, both too tired to make small talk. About halfway down, Joe noticed Catherine perk up suddenly, a bright smile lighting her pretty features.

"Whatís up, Radcliffe? You just remember you have a hot date or something?" Catherine looked at him in surprise.

"What? Oh. . . no! I mean, yes." Joe thought the secretive little smile that lit up her eyes made her look even more beautiful than usual. "Yes, I guess I do."

Laughing softly, Catherine offered him no further explanation, knowing there was none he would understand. How could she tell him that she had felt Vincentís return and knew he was waiting for her on their balcony? He would never understand it. How could he? There were times she didnít completely understand it herself.

*

Catherineís usual agitation at the time-consuming entrance into her apartment, which consisted of balancing her purse, briefcase and assorted packages while fumbling with a stubborn lock, took on a whole new meaning when she heard a soft, deep chuckle from the other side filtering through the offending door. The object of her frustrated passions of the past few nights was waiting on the other side of this stubborn door, and she was getting very impatient.

Vincent pulled the door open, stepping back into the darkened living room to hide in the shadows. Catherine shut the door behind her, dropping everything she held on the floor and threw herself into his waiting arms.

"Catherine, Iíve missed you so much." His arms wrapped her in a gentle bear hug as his mouth claimed hers hungrily.

She tangled her hands in his thick, tawny hair and melted against his sturdy frame, returning his kiss urgently. She pulled away enough to speak, not quite relinquishing her hold on his exotic mouth.

"Iíve missed you, too, Vincent. Itís been so long." She kissed him again. Her hands crept beneath his cape to wrap around his waist. Her body pressed against his, their kisses deepened until they were both gasping for air.

Pulling away, Catherine reached to unclasp the hook holding his cape. Pushing it off his shoulders, she let it fall to the ground. Once more she pulled him close, hungrily seeking his tasty mouth.

Vincent carefully maneuvered his hands between their bodies to unbutton her coat. Catherine squirmed with pleasure as his long fingers brushed lightly against her breasts. Soon, her coat joined his on the floor. His strong arms wrapped around her. He pulled her hard against his body, staring down at her with a gaze that seared her very soul with the depth of his passion.

"Catherine, I know it isnít Friday yet, but I simply couldnít wait one moment longer to be with you. I promise I wonít keep you up too late, but I had to see you."

"Vincent, I donít care how late you keep me up." Her fingers caressed his cheek tenderly as she whispered seductively, "We can keep each other up all night, if thatís all right with you. Iíve been thinking about you all day long." Her mischievous smile made him shiver with delight.

"I know. . ." His deep voice trembled with emotion, and she felt him tremble. Catherine suddenly realized the impact her wondering thoughts must have had on him. From the night he had rescued her, heíd always been able to feel her every emotion, and once they had taken the final step to an intimate relationship, his sense of her had become even more acute. He knew everything about her thoughts, her moods, her needs, her desires. He felt everything.

Catherine smiled sheepishly, feeling just a little guilty, but taking great delight in knowing she could affect him so intensely. Her whispered, "Sorry about that" might have sounded more sincere had it not been for the decidedly satisfied look he saw in her green eyes.

Sensing the joy she felt at her affect on him, Vincent accepted her halfhearted apology. Heíd known from the beginning of their physical relationship that he would have to learn to live with her highly charged emotional life. There were times, however, when he wished he could find a way to downplay the connection they shared whenever it came to Catherineís passion for him. While he took great joy and pride in knowing that she returned the emotions he so strongly experienced, at times they could be a bit. . . distracting. Still, she had enriched his life so thoroughly that he would gratefully accept every part of the bond that kept them physically and emotionally intertwined, and would never willingly give up any part of it.

"Why donít I slip into something comfortable, while you pour us a glass of wine? Youíll find a bottle in the fridge.

"Catherine, you know how wine affects me... "

She kissed him softly, her eyes twinkling suggestively. "I know. Why do you think Iíve had it waiting?" She kissed him again.

"Iíll bring the wine to your bedroom, Catherine." His husky voice was filled with passion. "I... " His brow crinkled quizzically as Vincent experienced a sudden unfamiliar feeling.

"Catherine, IÖ "

Taking his hesitation for the shyness she knew he still felt regarding their newly developed relationship, Catherine gave him a gentle push toward the kitchen, whispering, "Donít be long." She turned, making her way to the bedroom.

"Achoo!"

Catherine turned, her eyes wide with surprise.

"Achoo!"

Catherine tried desperately to stifle the giggle that welled up inside her. Though she had never heard Vincent sneeze, it wasnít so much the sneeze itself, it was the sound of the sneeze. No, it was more the size of the sneeze, or lack thereof that surprised her.

Vincent was a big man. Everything about him was big. His heart, his hands, his voice, his height, his... Catherine shook her head, trying to get her mind back on the right track. Well, everything about him was big. However, the sound that accompanied his sneezing was almost delicate. In fact, he sounded a little like. . . Mittens.

Catherine buried her face in her hands, partly out of embarrassment at the route her thoughts had suddenly taken, but mostly to try and contain the giggles threatening to escape. She failed miserably.

"Catherine, I. . . " Unfortunately, hiding her face could not mask the hurt she heard in his voice. Her heart went out to him when she saw the look of shock that filled his eyes.

"Vincent, Iím so sorry."

"Achoo! Achoo! ! ! " He tried desperately to take a deep breath, but found it difficult.

This last sneezing fit was accompanied by a lot of sniffling and Catherine was suddenly concerned. She hurried toward him, feeling his forehead. There was no fever, but his eyes were red-rimmed and watery. Something was wrong.

"Vincent, are you feeling all right?" She felt his forehead again. "I donít think you have a fever, but your eyes are all red and watery." She peered closer. "And I think theyíre swollen."

"Achoo! Achoo! Achoo!!! Catherine, Iím sorry. . . " His uncalled for apology was broken short by another sneezing fit. This time Catherineís concern turned to fear. Sheíd never seen him like this. Something was desperately wrong.

"Vincent, youíd better go Below and let Father take a look at you. You sound like you might be coming down with a cold or something."

He could hear the disappointment in her voice, but Vincent was quickly becoming worried, too. Heíd never experienced anything like this before. And it was obvious that their reunion was not going to take place tonight. Not with him sneezing and sniffling like this.

"I think youíre right, Catherine." He waited for his sneezing fit to abate before continuing. "I should probably go Below and let. . . " Another sneezing fit interrupted his words.

Catherine picked up his cape, securing it around his shoulders. As much as she wanted him to stay, she knew he had to go Below to Father. "Vincent, will you be able to get down your usual way? Suppose you start having a sneezing attack while youíre trying to climb down?"

In between sneezes, Vincent managed to assure her that he would take extra care in going Below, but he could tell he hadnít really convinced her.

"All right, you go on. Iíll meet you Below as soon as I can." She kissed him gently. "Be careful, Vincent."

*

Catherine arrived in Fatherís study just as he was finishing a thorough examination of his patient.

"Vincent, I canít seem to find anything wrong."

"What do you mean, you canít find anything wrong? He was sneezing his head off upstairs in my apartment less than an hour ago. Iíve never heard him sneeze. There has to be something wrong."

"Maybe so, Catherine, but as you can see heís just fine now."

Catherine looked at Vincent, her earlier concern turning quickly to confusion as she realized that he was no longer sneezing and his eyes were quickly returning to normal. Running to him, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him soundly.

"Vincent, you had me so worried. I had visions of you losing your grip during one of those sneezing fits. What on earth could have caused it? And why did it stop so suddenly? I donít understand?"

"I donít understand it either, Catherine. The sneezing stopped just about the time I arrived home."

"Iíve checked you out thoroughly, Vincent, and as far as I can see, there is nothing wrong. Your temperature, your pulse rate and heartbeat are all normal -- at least normal for you. Perhaps you just ran into something that didnít quite set right with your system. Whatever it was, it seems to have passed." Believing that his medical services were no longer needed, and knowing that his presence was definitely not wanted, Father began putting away his medical instruments in preparation for taking his leave.

"Iíll be in my chamber if anything further happens. Perhaps the two of you could join me for a cup of tea before you return Above, Catherine." He glanced up to find his two companions sharing what was obviously a relief filled embrace. Clearing his voice, more to announce his departure rather than out of necessity, he smiled tenderly at what he had finally come to think of as his Ďchildren.í

"Yes, well, maybe later this evening. Catherine, you really shouldnít stay too long, my dear. You have to get up early in the morning, and you need your rest. Perhaps you could come Below Friday night and spend the weekend with us. Iím sure that William would look forward to preparing a special meal for the occasion. Heís always fussing that no one in the tunnels seems to appreciate his culinary talents anymore."

Catherine turned in Vincentís arms, smiling affectionately at Father. "Yes, Iíd love to come Below for the weekend. You tell William Iím really looking forward to a bowl of that delicious stew only he can make. And if he really wants to show off his cooking prowess, those brownies he made the last time I stayed would not go ignored. Tell him I promise to eat whatever he decides to serve. Iíll diet next week. I swear if I lived here permanently, that manís cooking would have me big as a barn in no time."

"Yes, well, Iíll let William know youíll be coming, and Iíll be sure to pass along your compliments. Iím sure he will be delighted to hear that someone appreciates all his hard work. Please stop by and say goodnight before you leave, my dear. Vincent, Iíll see you later."

"Goodnight, Father." These last words were somewhat muffled as Catherine pulled Vincentís head down for a long, deep kiss. Father turned to sneak one quick peek at the couple.

They stood, arms wrapped about one another, bodies pressed tightly against each other, and Father offered a silent prayer of thanks that Vincent had finally found the life that could never be he had always felt certain would never be attainable for his son. In spite of his Doubting Thomas attitude, Catherine and Vincent had proven him wrong. They had fought against all the odds and won. His whispered, "Goodnight, children," went unheard. Limping slowly, he left Vincentís chamber to return to his own.

The sound carried out into the passageway, stopping his retreat. Vincent was sneezing again. Father turned and hurried back into the chamber to find Catherine staring at Vincent in complete shock.

"I donít understand, Father! He was just fine a few minutes ago. Now look at him! Whatís wrong?"

Vincentís sneezing had gotten completely out of control again. The sneezes were coming so quickly and so fiercely he could barely speak. His eyes were once again red-rimmed and teary.

"What happened? When did it start again?"

"Just now. We were kissing and suddenly Vincent pulled away and started sneezing. And once he started, it just got worse and. . . Well, look at him! He can hardly catch his breath. Help him."

Father was becoming worried, too. He had seen Vincent like this only once before -- the Christmas he was six and Devin had brought down a very large poinsettia plant someone had tossed away. It was a huge thing, almost three feet in diameter, and several tunnel dwellers had experienced an allergic reaction to it. Especially Vincent.

While most of the reactions were mild and cleared up once the plant was removed, poor Vincent had reacted much more violently to it, to the point of becoming nauseous and breaking out in hives. The boy had been quite sick, and it had taken Father almost a week to clear up his allergy.

Vincentís symptoms this time were quite similar, which meant that he was having an allergic reaction to something, and given the circumstances, Father had an idea of what it could be. Somehow, he was certain that neither his son or Catherine were going to like what he had to say.

"Catherine, I want you to do something for me."

Catherine nodded slowly, her eyes filled with fear. "Anything, Father."

"Step away from him for a few minutes."

"What. . . " Catherine looked at him in shock, instantly aware of his train of thoughts. "Father, you donít think. . . ? "

"Iím not sure, Catherine, but I do think we have to rule out everything. You said that Vincent was sneezing violently when he was Above with you. Yet, when he arrived Below he was fine. And now heís sneezing again. The only other time Iíve seen this happen was when he had an allergic reaction to a poinsettia plant one Christmas. Why donít you just step away from him for a bit and see what happens?"

Reluctantly, Catherine moved away from Vincent, crossing his chamber to stand by the entranceway. The three of them stood waiting silently as the most agonizing minutes passed. It took a while, but slowly Vincentís sneezing finally slowed down. Catherineís eyes took on a look of total defeat. You didnít have to have a doctorís degree to know what the problem was. Somehow, she was the reason for Vincentís attacks.

"Well, now all we have to do is find out what it is youíre wearing that Vincentís system doesnít seem to be able to tolerate? That shouldnít be too hard."

Motioning for the two of them to sit down at opposite ends of the chamber, Father took a seat between them -- obviously determined to keep them apart. It was an unnecessary act on his part, since Catherine had no intention of going near Vincent, in spite of the separation they had just endured.

Father glanced from one to the other, convinced that he had never in his life seen two such miserable looking souls. Well, they would just have to hurry and find out what the problem was so that they could get their lives back to normal.

"Catherine, are you using anything different than you have before? A new perfume perhaps, or a new shampoo?"

"No, nothing. Iíve been using the same soap and hair products for several years now. And I use the same perfume all the time -- the one Vincent has always liked so much. I havenít tried anything new in a couple of years."

"What about in your apartment? Have you used any new cleaning products? Do you have any new plants? Has your apartment building been fumigated for anything lately?"

"No. Besides, Vincent didnít show any signs of being affected until he came in contact with me. And he had an attack here Below with just me around. If it were something in my apartment, it shouldnít affect him here, should it?"

"I suppose itís possible that some small residue from whatever it is could be lingering on your clothes, but I think itís highly unlikely. No, itís more likely that itís something you are using yourself. Are you sure there isnít something new youíve started using?"

"No, Father, Iím sure."

"Well, it is possible for someone to develop an allergic reaction to something theyíve been around for a long time. Maybe thatís what has happened. Why donít I have Mary take you down to the bathing pools and let you take a nice hot bath? She can give you some of the soap and shampoo we use in the tunnels, and then weíll see what happens. All right?"

Catherine shot him an exasperated look that plainly said she was willing to try anything. Father hurried to summon Mary, leaving Vincent and Catherine staring sadly across the chamber at one another. This was definitely not the way they had expected to celebrate their reunion.

*

Catherine scrubbed her body until it felt almost raw and shampooed her hair twice. Drying herself off with the large, fluffy towels Mary had supplied her with, she put on the long, tunnel-style gown Mary had also left for her. Gathering her own clothes, she folded them in a neat pile, absent-mindedly brushing at the cat hairs Mittens had so graciously saw fit to leave behind. She carried her clothes and the towels back to the chamber where Vincent sat waiting -- very impatiently.

Vincent sat at his desk, shoulders slumped, his head bent forward so that his hair brushed the tabletop. He looked to be the soul of dejection. Sensing her arrival, he looked up at her, hope filling his eyes. He loved the way she was dressed. She looked so beautiful, so soft, soÖ

Shaking his head, Vincent reminded himself that they still had one more hurtle to cross -- as if their lives hadnít already experienced enough hurdles already -- and such a ridiculously unexpected hurtle at that. A sneezing fit of all things!

Cautiously, Catherine walked toward him slowly, resisting the urge to throw herself into his arms and kiss him until he hadnít a breath left in his body. Hopefully, if the bath had done the trick, she could do just that and not have to worry about the reaction she would get from him.

Slowly, she curled her arms around his neck, leaning against his strong body, and breathing deeply of the scent that was uniquely his. Vincent wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her gently against him and burying his face in her sweet smelling hair.

"Ah, Catherine, you smell so good." She shivered as she felt his mouth brush against her neck. Tightening her hold on him, she moved against his hard body, in obvious invitation. Her desires pulsated strongly through their bond. Vincent sensed the slight hesitation she still felt, but passion finally overrode caution. Sweeping her up in his arms, he carried her to his big bed. He laid her down, covering her small body gently with his own.

"Oh, Vincent, Iíve missed you so much. Iíve missed this. . . " Catherine wriggled beneath him, moaning softly as his powerful hands caressed her quivering flesh.

"Catherine, Iíve missed you, too. I hate being separated from you even for a night." He kissed her deeply, his raspy tongue tasting every inch of her warm, moist mouth. His hands crept up to tenderly cup her aching breast.

Catherine arched sharply against him. She heard the sharp intake of his breath as she reached between them to caress the swollen proof of his desire. Her hands worked frantically to undo the many buttons on his shirt, anxious to feel the powerful chest and soft, downy fur hidden beneath.

"Catherine, IÖ "

Catherine mistook the slight hint of hesitation she sensed in him for passion, as her hands gently continued their determined assault.

"Catherine, I. . . "

The far too familiar sound that filled the chamber was all that was needed to throw a damper on their romantic mood. In a repeat of something that was becoming far too familiar, Vincent sneezed again. And again, and again, making it painfully obvious that their hoped for reunion was not going to happen tonight.

***

 

Thursday

Catherine sat, sipping what had to be her fortieth cup of tea. She watched as the early morning sun slowly pushed back the dark shadows that had come to mean so much to her. Without them, she and Vincent wouldnít have had all the private moments alone she so treasured. She tried desperately to rid herself of the nagging worry that there might not be any more romantic trysts for her and the man she loved more than life itself.

Sheíd gotten very little sleep the night before, and was tempted to call off work sick. But she knew if she did that, she would waste the day away filling miserable and sorry for herself, and there was no way she wanted to add to Vincentís misery by subjecting him to that. Downing the now cold cup of tea, she reluctantly went in to take and shower and get ready for work.

*

Unable to concentrate on the paperwork in front of her, Catherine decided to slip away for an early lunch and follow the suggestion Father had made before sheíd left the tunnels the previous night.

Stopping by her favorite department store, she purchased a complete assortment of soap, shampoo, hair spray and even some new make up. Forcing herself to eat in order to keep up her strength, she stopped at a deli and ordered a turkey sandwich that had all the taste of the paper it was wrapped in.

After lunch, she returned to the office, throwing herself headlong into the paperwork she hoped would take her mind off the unusual reunion she and Vincent had experienced. Unfortunately, it didnít help.

As if sensing Catherineís depression, Mittens jumped on the desk, making her way across it to sit in her lap. Rubbing her head against the soft sweater Catherine wore, the cat began a loud purring, and wriggled her cold, wet nose under Catherineís hand.

"Oh, so you want to be petted, do you?" Catherine scratched the catís ear, then slipped her fingers beneath the collar to scratch her neck.

Mittens purred even louder, curled into a ball and made herself at home in the warm, comfortable lap Catherine offered.

The rest of the day went far too slowly as Catherine divided her time between holding the cat, scratching the cat, chasing the cat off her papers, and wishing she were with Vincent.

Sheíd thought about going Below and trying out the suggestion Father had offered -- a nice long bath or shower using all new toiletries, new makeup, new everything. She had offered several fervent prayers that their unusual problem had a simple solution. That solution being that Vincent had, for some inexplicable reason, suddenly developed an allergy to something she had been using all along.

After giving the idea of going Below serious thought, Catherine decided it was best that she wait and see Vincent this evening on her balcony. . . alone. If Fatherís suggestion worked, she was planning a reunion that would leave them both weak and breathless, and for that she wanted strict privacy. Barring an unforeseeable act of God, absolutely no interruptions would be acceptable.

The day finally ended earlier than usual for her, but Catherine could think of no reason to stick around. She wasnít accomplishing a thing, and she had a lot to do before Vincentís visit. She checked to make sure that Mittens had food and water for the night before packing up to leave.

As was becoming the habit, she found her briefcase once again occupied by more cat than papers, since Mittens had managed to scatter most of the contents all over the floor.

"Mittens, you little fur-ball! Why do you like my briefcase so much? Whatís wrong with your bed? You know, that big, round wicker thing I put over in the corner for you. Isnít it comfortable enough for you?" Catherine shook the briefcase out, brushing at the cat hair clinging to the bottom. Catching a whiff of a disagreeable odor, she shook her head.

"Boy that collar of yours still smells strong. Iíll be glad when it fades some. I donít know how you stand wearing it all the time."

Perched on the edge of the desk, Mittens assumed an air of total indifference, refusing to be so undignified as to remind her new friend that it was she who had put the fowl smelling contraption around her neck and insisted that she wear it. Licking her paw, she began cleaning her ear. Having see that particular action from the cat before, Catherine laughed softly to herself as she remembered a bumper sticker she had see recently -- You havenít been truly ignored, until youíve been ignored by a cat!

*

It was still early when she arrived home, so Catherine decided to take the opportunity to give her apartment a good cleaning. She cleaned all the furniture, including her collection of eggs, using warm, soapy water, and vacuumed the entire apartment. She threw a load of clothes, including what she was planning on wearing tonight, into the washer with the new hypo-allergenic laundry detergent.

After downing a salad and a cup of tea for supper, she climbed into the shower to scrub herself thoroughly. She washed her hair, using the new shampoo and cream rinse sheíd purchased on her lunch break -- everything hypo-allergenic. She applied the new makeup sparingly, and decided against using perfume.

Turning the television to the news channel, Catherine opened her briefcase, dumping the entire contents on the living room floor. Thanks to a stubborn ball of fur, everything was completely mixed up. Oh well, it would give her something to keep her mind busy until Vincent arrived. It was a boring task, but it was either that or stare at the clock watching the minutes tick slowly by. Even so, she found herself constantly taking several sneak peeks at the clock, but she did succeed in putting her papers back in order. Stretching her cramped muscles, Catherine walked out onto the balcony. The sky was just beginning to darken. Vincent would be arriving in another half hour or so. Hurrying into the bedroom, she quickly changed into the clean clothes and ran a brush through her hair. Going back out onto the balcony, she waited impatiently for the dark.

*

The last pale rays of day slowly faded. The darkening sky was soon filled with the brilliance of thousands of stars and a bright, crescent moon. Leaning against the balustrade, Catherine closed her eyes, reaching out to Vincent through their bond. She could sense his approach, and the trepidation he felt regarding their visit. He was anxious to see her, desperate to be with her, but he was also more than a little worried. The still night air stirred suddenly with the gentle breezed that always seemed to signal his arrival. She could feel him standing in the corner watching her... waiting.

"Catherine. . . "

She shivered at the sound of his voice. He spoke her name in a way no one ever had. His passion filled voice was soft, a mere whisper, and held the slightest hint of wonder and. . . an almost reverence. Catherine was at once humbled and secretively thrilled by it. She probably would have been surprised to learn that everyone heard what she heard when Vincent spoke her name. She would be even more surprised to learn that they heard the same thing when she spoke his.

"Vincent." Somehow, she resisted the urge to throw herself at him. All she wanted at that moment was to feel him in her arms, to breathe in the scent of him, and hold his strong, hard body close.

Sensing her need, Vincent quickly closed the gap between them, wrapping her in the gentlest of bear hugs. Catherineís arms slipped around his neck as she melted against him despite her misgivings. All day long sheíd been telling herself, Ďslow and easy, Catherine, take things slow and easy -- just in case.í

She trembled as his exotic mouth nuzzled her neck. His powerful hands pressed against the small of her back, pulling her tightly against him. Slowly, he covered her neck and face with soft kisses until he reached her full mouth. He kissed her deeply, his tongue delving between her parted lips to taste fully of her.

Catherine moaned softly, grasping his neck for support as her legs suddenly refused to support her slight weight. The blood in her veins turned to quicksilver and her head spun maddeningly out of control. The need for air finally separated them -- just barely. They clung to one another for support and out of a desperate need to be close.

Catherine glanced up to find him staring down at her, his sapphire eyes sparkling with a fiery passion. She could feel his pulse quickening through the invisible thread that connected them, and felt her own pulse begin to keep pace with his until they were almost beating as one. She could feel him fighting to quell the raging fire threatening to consume him. Her soft hand gently caressed the side of his face as she whispered, "I know, Vincent. I know."

With a deep sigh, he once again buried his face in her sweet smelling hair. They stood quietly, holding each other close, both hoping fervently that finally things would be all right in the world they had at long last found together.

Catherine felt him tremble, and at first attributed it to the strong sense of desire she knew he always experienced. But then, through their bond, she thought she felt something else.

Pulling away slightly, Vincent looked down at her, an all too familiar look beginning to distort his unique features. And when it came, it was a great disappointment, but not really a surprise. Vincent sneezed again! And again, and again, andÖ

"No!" Catherineís cry was heart wrenching, ripping through him like a sharp knife. "It canít be! Vincent, I changed everything, just like Father said. Everything! I donít understand."

Reluctantly, Vincent crossed the length of the balcony to stand in the shadow-filled corner opposite her. They stood, watching each other sadly. Finally, after several agonizing minutes, his sneezing eased.

"Catherine, I am sorry. I. . . " He held his hands out in a gesture of helplessness that tore at her heart.

"Oh, Vincent, itís not your fault. Itís not my fault. Itís. . . oh, damn it, I donít know what it is." She turned to gaze out over the balcony at the starry sky as if searching there for the answers that eluded them.

"I thought... I hoped that Fatherís suggestion would help. I did everything he told me to do. I bought all new things, I showered, I washed my hair! I havenít used anything new! NothingÖ" She turned to look at him.

Vincent sensed the sudden change in her train of thought. "What is it, Catherine?"

"There is one new thing. Mittens!"

"Mittens? Catherine, what would a pair of mittens have to do with this? And why would you have a pair of mittens at this time of the year?"

"Not mittens as in a pair of, Vincent. Iím talking about Mittens, the cat." She started toward him, but caught herself before she could inflict any more damage.

"Mittens is a stray cat that took up at the office just before you left on that last trip to the lower tunnels. Sheís the only new thing thatís come into my life lately. She has to be the problem."

Vincent shook his head, his eyes plainly saying he wanted nothing more than for her to be right. "I donít think so, Catherine. Iíve never been allergic to cats. Weíve had them in the tunnels periodically, and Iíve never had any reaction to one. Besides, how long has she been around your office?"

"About two weeks, I think -- give or take a day or two. Why?"

"If thatís the case, then she canít be the problem. We were... together several times before I left to check out the lower tunnels."

In spite of her sadness, Catherine couldnít help but smile at the momentís hesitation she heard in his voice, and the slight pinkish tinge his complexion suddenly assumed, as he searched for what he would deem Ďthe proper phraseí to describe their union. But her heart sank as his words registered fully.

"And if we spent all that time together right after Mittens arrived on the scene, then she canít possibly be the problem."

"Iím afraid so, Catherine."

"Then weíre right back where we started." Catherine fought desperately to keep from crying. She didnít want to make him feel any worse than he already did... than they both did. Noticing that he seemed to be over his most recent attack, she tried to keep her voice light, in spite of a very heavy heart.

"Well, at least youíre not sneezing anymore." She tried hard to feel good about that at least, and to some degree she succeeded. However, her observation only seem to lend credence to the idea that had already begun to form in her mind.

"Youíd better go, Vincent. We obviously canít stay together tonight. At least youíve stopped sneezing, so I wonít have to worry about you falling." She tried to make her voice light, but failed.

"Iíll talk to Father, Catherine. There has to be an answer -- a solution. Weíll find it."

Catherine nodded, her eyes filling with the tears sheíd been fighting back. Her whispered, "I know," sounded sad and very doubtful.

"Iíll see you tomorrow night. Weíll solve this problem, Catherine. I know we will." His voice was filled with assurance. Through the bond she could sense his unspoken words -- after all the problems weíve survived to be together, how could one so simple and downright silly stop them? And suddenly Catherine allowed herself to hope.

"Iíll see you tomorrow night, then. Be careful, Vincent. I love you."

Not waiting for his final farewell, Catherine hurried into her bedroom, shutting the door behind her. She couldnít bear to watch him slip over the edge of the balcony and disappear into the night. Not this time. Throwing herself on the bed, she gave in to the pain and sadness of the past couple of days and indulged herself in a long crying jag.

Vincent leaned against the wall, fighting the urge to peer in at Catherine as she lie on her bed sobbing uncontrollably. Perhaps a little sneezing could be tolerated if it meant he could at least comfort her. But he knew she would only make him leave, not wanting to cause him any further discomfort. After several minutes, lack of rest and the anguish of the past couple of days caught up with her, and she fell into a fitful sleep. She was totally unaware that Vincent was still on the balcony keeping a lonely vigil, grateful for the chance to be at least this close to her.

Catherine tossed and turned in her uneasy sleep, murmuring his name. Outside, her equally frustrated lover sat down, resting his back against the wall. Closing his eyes, he filled his thoughts with their time together -- their lovemaking. And through a bond that had grown ten times stronger than before, they were able to share in their dreams what fate seemed to be keeping them from sharing in the flesh. Vincent shared this experience with her, knowing that she would forgive him this slight intrusion on her privacy.

From the quiet bedroom, Vincent heard her soft, contented sighs as Catherine settled into a calmer sleep, dreaming of strong, powerful hands caressing her, a uniquely shaped mouth covering her face and body with passionate kisses, and a strong, ethereal sense of love and desire filling her very soul.

Closing his eyes, he concentrated fully on her, and through their bond his silent words of love managed to quell her tumultuous dreams.

ĎSleep, Catherine, sleep. Iím with you even now. I will always be with you. We will find a way to get through this, and then nothing will ever keep us apart again. I promise you. Sleep.í

He kept watch over her all night, until the first rays of sun began lighting the darkness that was his safety. Then, and only then, did Vincent leave her to scurry Below for a few hours sleep himself, and then a confrontation with Father. Something had do be done. Today! He was determined he would not spend one more night without Catherine lying at his side.

Friday

Catherine spent another unproductive day at work, and was beginning to wonder just how long it would be before Joe noticed that she seemed to be having a problem. The morning hours moved at a snailís pace, and she found everything she tried to concentrate on soon turned into a blur of words and sentences that meant nothing. Lunchtime was spent gulping down another tasteless sandwich and a cold cup of coffee in a diner she couldnít even remember the name of.

In spite of her total lack of concentration, she managed to find her way back to work, where the office mascot once again made herself at home in one of her favorite napping spot --Catherineís briefcase. Catherine found herself easily distracted by the catís comical behavior as Mittens rolled onto her back, arching and wriggling until the papers were just the way she wanted them. With a soft sigh, she would settle down for a few minutes until she suddenly decided that her "bed" needed to be rearranged again. After several such episodes, Catherine swooped the cat up, making the excuse to herself that she was just trying to prevent the contents of the briefcase from being scattered about the office floor, but secretly happy for the interruption.

"Mittens, you little monster! Youíre making a mess." The cat yelped loudly, as though objecting to her sudden removal from the spot she was finally managing to make comfortable. Finding herself on a soft, willing lap, however, Mittens quickly decided against further objection. She curled into a ball and began purring contentedly, hoping it wouldnít take Catherine long to slip her fingers beneath the nasty thing choking her neck and ease the terrible itch that always seem to accompany it.

As if reading the catís mind, Catherine began almost absently scratching the catís neck and chin, eliciting a loud, satisfied purring from deep within her belly. And when her nails found their way to her ears, Mittens almost moaned with pleasure.

Catherine fought back tears as she suddenly thought of moans and sighs and other sounds of pleasure she could be eliciting from someone sheíd much rather be scratching and stroking andÖ

"No offence, Mittens, but this isnít how I want to be spending my time. I mean, youíre a nice cat and all, but I should be with Vincent. I should be making him purr like this, not you. Damn it!" Her work forgotten, Catherine stared out the window, feeling miserable and alone.

"Whoa, Radcliffe, talk about look as if youíve just lost your best friend. . . " The look she threw him would have stopped a herd of elephants in their tracks. Realizing that she really was upset about something, Joeís tone changed immediately to that of a worried friend.

"Whatís wrong, Cathy?"

The sincerity in his voice brought tears to her eyes, and Catherine found herself desperately wanting to tell him everything.

"Itís. . . " Her shoulders slumped as she sighed with deep disappointment. She couldnít possible tell Joe what had happened. There was no one she could share this particular problem with.

"Iím just not feeling very well, Joe." It was a small fib, actually. Between the problem she was having with Vincent and a lack of sleep, she really did feel pretty lousy.

"Well, why didnít you say something when you first came in this morning?" He felt her forehead, feeling a genuine concern for the friend he thought worked herself much too hard. "You donít have a fever, but you do look a bit pale. Maybe you should see a doctor, Cathy."

"I donít need a doctor. I... "Her face lit up as Joeís suggestion suddenly gave her an idea. "A doctor? Of course!" Jumping up, she ignored the loud, angry yelp of a cat being unceremoniously dumped on the floor.

"Joe, youíre a doll." She gave her boss a quick kiss on the cheek and began gathering her belongings. "I probably should see a doctor right now. Thanks. I have no idea how long this might take, so Iíll take the rest of the day off if thatís all right with you. Goodnight."

"Sure, kiddo. See you Monday. Hope everythingís all right." His words went unheard as Catherine grabbed her coat and left in a rush, leaving behind an angry and somewhat indignant cat and a very confused boss. Joe could not remember ever having seen someone almost happy about having to see a doctor.

*

"Cathy, honey, calm down. What youíre suggesting is just too preposterous. There has to be another explanation." Catherine whirled on her friend and doctor, her eyes filled with desperation.

"Like what, Peter? Weíve tried everything. Iíve changed my shampoo, my deodorant, the soap I shower with, my makeup, everything! Nothing helps. What else can it be?" Catherine shook her head sadly.

Peter knew from the determined look on her face and the stubborn set of her shoulders that he was going to have a very difficult time convincing her that her idea was groundless.

"Where is he now?"

"What?" Her sudden question had caught him off guard.

"Where is Vincent now?"

"Heís Below. Why?"

"When did you seen him last, Peter?"

"This morning. I went Below to check on him. Father wanted me to run some blood tests on him. I brought a sample back with me to check in the lab."

"Did you check it?" Peter nodded.

"And?" Catherine tapped her fingers on the edge of his desk impatiently. "Did you find anything?"

"No, I didnít. Everything was normal."

"At least normal for Vincent -- I know. Was he sneezing when you saw him?"

Peter shook his head slowly, whispering almost apologetically, "No, he was fine."

"Would you like to make a small wager? I bet I could take a long, hot shower, using yet another whole new batch of toiletries and makeup, right down to a new toothpaste, go Below and cause Vincent to have another one of those blasted sneezing attacks?"

"Not necessarily."

"You mean you donít want to bet, or I wouldnít cause Vincent to start sneezing?"

"CathyÖ"

The dejected look on her friendís face softened Catherineís anger. Peter was not at fault, and screaming at him was not going to help.

"Iím sorry, Peter. I shouldnít be taking it out on you."

Peter wrapped his arms around the young woman heíd known since birth, offering a shoulder to cry on and a sympathetic ear, wholeheartedly wishing he could offer more. He knew how much Vincent and Catherine loved one another and how much they had endured to be truly together. He knew how much they missed not being able to be together now.

Sniffling, Catherine buried her face against Peterís chest, allowing herself a moment of self-pity. Her muffled, "Peter, what are we going to do?" tugged at his heart. Gently lifting her chin, the doctor pulled his handkerchief from his pocket, gallantly drying her tears.

"Iíve changed everything I can think of. Everything! But Vincent still started sneezing when I saw him last night. What else could it be?"

"I donít know, sweetheart, but what youíre suggesting is just too farfetched."

"Are you saying that itís impossible?"

"Well... no. Itís not impossible, but it is highly improbable."

"But not impossible?"

"No, but... " Peter shook his head, his eyes pinning her with a determined look. "The chances of it happening have got to be astronomical, Cathy. Iíve been a doctor for over forty years and Iíve never heard of it happening."

"But it can happen?"

Peter grasped her shoulders, shaking her gently while giving her his sternest doctor to patient look. "Catherine Victoria Chandler, you listen to me. Vincent is not allergic to you. In all my years as a doctor, I have never heard of even one case of one person being allergic to another. Not one! Vincent is allergic to something you are using or coming in contact with, and weíll find out what it is. I promise."

"How? All the tests have been negative. Thereís obviously nothing physically wrong with him. Iíve changed everything I use, and it didnít help. Vincent starts sneezing violently every time I get close to him. What else can we do?"

Peterís eyes suddenly brightened. "Iíve got an idea. Iíll come by tonight with Vincent and weíll try something. Maybe, just maybe, it isnít one particular thing. Maybe itís a combination of things interacting with your chemistry. Who knows? Weíll try a couple of experiments to see if we can find the problem. In the meantime... " He motioned for Catherine to have a seat.

"Weíve checked Vincent for any possible medical problems, now itís your turn. I need a sample of your blood to run the same tests I ran on Vincent -- just to be sure. Roll up your sleeve."

Catherine stared out the window, avoiding the needle as it pricked her skin. Sheíd always had an aversion toward needles, but if it would help them discover the reason for Vincentís problem, she would willingly give Peter every ounce of blood in her body. Luckily, he settled for one vial.

*

Having left Peterís office earlier than she had thought she would, Catherine made a quick stop at her office to pick up Mittens. The office personnel had begun taking turns keeping the cat over the weekend to avoid leaving the poor thing in the office alone. Actually, she was sure they just used that reasoning as an excuse to take Mittens home, since there was usually someone in and out on the weekend anyway.

Catherine had all but forgotten she had finally volunteered to take a turn with Mittens. In spite of her buildingís no pet policy, she had decided she could easily get away with it occasionally. She was sure she could keep the small cat under wraps for a couple of days and she had been looking forward to having her little visitor -- until this mess with Vincent had come along. Still, it was too late to try and get someone else to take over the cat-sitting task. She found Mittens lying in the middle of her desk as if awaiting her return. Uncurling her supine body, Mittens took an extra long time stretching and licking the few wayward patches of fur that had become a bit unruly while she napped. She gazed at Catherine fleetingly, almost daring the human lady to try and rush her. Finally finished with her grooming, Mittens jumped to the floor to stand in front of the bottom right drawer of Catherineís desk. Pinning her forgetful friend with an indignant stare, she let loose with a long, pathetic meow that was plainly a demand to know why she hadnít been given her daily treat.

"Oops. Sorry about that, Mittens. I didnít mean to forget to give you your treat. Itís just been one of those days."

Another loud meow and a flick of a tail gave Catherine the impression that Mittens wasnít the least bit interested in her excuses. She wanted her treat and she wanted it now!

"All right, all right. Joeís right, you know. You are spoiled." Giving the cat a gentle push, she opened the drawer. Satisfied that she had gotten her message across, Mittens began purring in happy expectation.

Catherine put the tuna-flavored treats on the floor, leaving the cat to her snack while she went about collecting the paraphernalia Mittens had acquired in her short stay. She had to make two trips to the car to make sure she had everything. Opening the door to the carrier someone had brought in, she held the door open, wondering if she were going to have a problem.

"Now look, Mittens, this is just for a little while. Weíll be home in no time, I promise." She wasnít sure which surprised her the most -- the speed with which Mittens settled into the carrier or the ease. It was almost as if the cat had understood her.

*

Before letting Mittens out of the carrier, Catherine made sure that the balcony doors were tightly closed. Sheíd seen the cat push more than one door open with her nose, or pull it open with her paws. And sheíd seen those tiny, white paws digging under the bathroom door on more than one occasion. The one thing Mittens seemed to hate most, next to people who refused to acknowledge her, was a closed door.

Mittens lost no time in searching out every nook and cranny to prowl in, and every interesting perch to climb on. Catherine watched as she climbed on the couch, and began digging wildly at something only she seemed able to see. With a sudden jump, she landed on the back of the couch, grasping it with all four paws for balance. And then, just as suddenly, she seemed to almost pole-vaulted her way to the matching easy chair, where she rubbed her head and ears against the upholstery for several minutes. Tiring of that, she jumped onto the cushion and began digging furiously once again at her invisible toy, and Catherine was suddenly grateful to her previous owner for having had her declawed.

Catherine laughed softly, wondering if all cats were as silly and weird as this one or if there was something in this particular catís heritage that made it extra silly and weird. Still, she had to admit that Mittens was rather entertaining. Leaving the cat to her prowling, she hurried to fill her water and food dishes. Suddenly more interested in what other mysteries were at her beck and call, the cat followed her.

Emptying her bags, Catherine placed the new toiletries she had just purchased today on the bathroom counter -- next to the ones sheíd purchased the day before, and the ones she normally used.

"This bathroom is starting to look like a drugstore." The soft meow she received in answer sounded decidedly uninterested. "Oh, well, Iíll send most of it Below when this is all over with."

Closing the shower curtain, Catherine reached in and turned it on, then pulled two thick towels and a washcloth from the linen closet. She glanced down to find Mittens standing on her hind legs, front paws up on the edge of the bathtub, peering intently into the tub. She was fascinated by the water as it swirled around the drain before disappearing. Picking the cat up, she deposited her in the bedroom.

"Sorry, Mittens, but this is one shower Iíll take alone, thank you. Besides, you know how much you hate water."

After an extra long shower and shampoo, Catherine wrapped a towel around herself, cautiously opening the bathroom door. She was surprised to find that Mittens was not lurking outside the door as she had expected. Instead, the cat was curled into a tight little ball on top of the pillows on the bed. Catherine sat down, reaching out to pet her silky fur.

"You certainly believe in making yourself at home, donít you, girl?" Lifting the catís chin, she scolded her gently. "Just donít get any ideas. Iím definitely hoping to share this bed with someone tonight, but Iíll be darned if itís going to be you." Mittens turned her nose into Catherineís palm and nuzzled. Her bright, blue eyes stared up at her, and Catherine could swear she gave her a look that said Ďweíll see.í Leaving the cat to her nap, she sat down at her dressing table to apply a touch of make up -- another hypo-allergenic brand of course.

*

Peter arrived a few minutes after she finished. Together, they set up everything Catherine had purchased in the past couple of days, plus several other articles sheíd been using all along. Catherine shook her head at the elaborate array of bottles and tubes.

"I never realized how much I spent on toiletries and makeup, Peter. Itís almost a sin, isnít it? No one needs that much soap or shampoo. As soon as weíre through here, Iím going to pick one brand and stick to it. The rest Iíll send Below, except for the one Vincent is allergic to, of course. That is if... "

"Catherine! Weíve been all through that." Catherine nodded her agreement, but somehow, she just couldnít be as sure as he seemed to be.

They waited quietly for darkness to come. Shortly after the last light of day faded, Mittens suddenly woke from her napping place on the back of the couch. With a loud, excited yelp that sounded like a cross between a meow and a growl, she ran to the terrace doors as if looking for something. Her long, bushy tail flicked back and forth nervously, and she began making little noises that sounded almost like a birdís chirping.

Catherine knew the exact moment he arrived, as much from the shimmery tingle she felt within their bond, as from Mittensí reaction. The cat stood up and began pawing insistently, at the door. The unusual noises sheíd been making grew even louder and seemed to take on an almost lustful tone. It was as if she knew that someone, or something, completely different than sheíd ever before encountered was on the other side of that door.

Grabbing the highly excited cat, Catherine put her in the bedroom for safe keeping. Sheíd seen Mittens try her little balancing act on anything and everything that was barely wide enough for her to get a footing. Somehow she was certain the balcony ledge would only be another tempting height for a very curious cat to scale. And the last thing she wanted to do was to test the validity of the old myth about cats always landing on their feet. True or not, Catherine didnít think a high-rise apartment was the best place to test the theory.

Catherine turned to find Vincent standing in the doorway, staring at her. They moved instinctively as one toward each other, their mutual need for physical contact shining in their eyes. Peter put up a hand in warning.

"Vincent, if this idea is going to work, you two have to stay away from each other until weíre finished. You stay right where you are, and Cathy, donít come any closer."

"All right, Peter, letís get started." The words Vincent left unspoken -- the sooner we get this over with, the sooner Catherine and I can be together -- rippled through their connection, and Catherine shivered with expectation.

Catherine sat at the dining room table, trying hard to curb her impatience and her concern. She wanted, no needed, to believe Peter when he had told her that her idea of Vincent being allergic to her was next to impossible. There was only a minute chance that it could be true, but it was this minuscule probability that gnawed at the back of her mind.

One by one, Peter introduced Vincent to a new product from the dining room table. Vincent would take several sniffs, then they would wait a few moments to gage his reaction.

Catherineís fingers were cramped from keeping them crossed, but she wasnít about to give up any extra edge it might give them, no matter how unscientific it was.

From the bedroom, Catherine could hear Mittens still making the little chirping/meowing sounds, and she could see her two front paws digging furiously under the door in a desperate attempt to get out. She saw Vincent glance at the door. Tilting his head slightly, he seemed to be concentrating on the tiny, furry creature heíd gotten only a quick glimpse of before Catherine had whisked it away to the safety of her bedroom.

"Mittens?"

"Yes. She went a little crazy when you arrived so I put her up." She smiled seductively, her eyes teasing. "And I thought I was the only female you affected that way."

"Vincent, Catherine... " They turned as one toward Peter, neither one thrilled at the despondent tone in their friendís voice.

"Iím afraid that everything weíve tried has come up negative. Vincent, you donít show any signs of being allergic to anything here. Catherine, are you sure you included everything new that youíve purchased, and the things you used before all this started?"

"Yes. Peter, I brought out everything. The only thing Iíve used in the past couple of days that isnít there is the soap and shampoo Mary gave me to use Wednesday night."

"Well, we already know that can be ruled out. Vincentís been using those for years, and heís still using them now without any side affects." Peter scratched his head, confusion plainly etched on his face.

"Why donít we try something?" He motioned for the two of them to move closer. "Maybe the whole thing was just a strange fluke or something. Go on, Cathy. Try hugging him."

She approached him slowly at first, afraid of causing him any more discomfort. Vincent, however, closed the gap between them quickly, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her tightly against him.

Peter watched, offering up a silent prayer. He gazed at them affectionately as they came together for a deep, passionate kiss -- hoping that his two favorite people in the world would finally be able to be truly together again.

*

"I knew it! Peter, you said it was virtually impossible for Vincent to be allergic to me!" Vincent stared first at Catherine, then Peter incredulously.

"Catherine, you actually thought I could be allergic to you?" The corners of his mouth turned up ever so slightly in the way she usually found charming, but for some reason only found irritating at this time.

"Yes, I did! And stop giving me that condescending, Ďisnít she sweet,í grin youíre always giving me. It was a reasonable question." She stood up and began pacing, while Peter stood staring down at his feet, beginning to feel like the proverbial harbinger of doom.

"Cathy, honey, why donít you sit down and try to stay calm?"

"You sit down and say calm, Peter!" She whirled on Vincent before he could come to their friendís defense.

"Vincent, youíve just sniffed your way through a ridiculously expensive array of soaps, shampoos, makeup and other junk. Nothing... nothing made you sneeze." She shook her head slowly, tears filling her eyes.

Lost in his thoughts, Peter began running through his mind everything that had happened in the past couple of days. Looking up suddenly, he interrupted Catherineís tirade.

"Cathy, did you say you used the soap they use Below that first night and that Vincent still sneezed?

"Yes, I did. Why?" He could tell that her patience was truly running out by the way she snapped at him.

"Why would he sneeze if you had just taken a bath with the soap heís been using for years? Did you use anything else that night? Anything of yours?"

"No. I took a long bath, shampooed my hair with the shampoo Mary gave me -- twice. Just like Father told me to do." Catherine stared at him, her eyes filled with sheer remorse as she heard the sound of her own voice.

"Peter, Iím sorry. I didnít mean to snap at you, but I really am getting tired of answering the same questions over and over." She took a deep, somewhat calming breath.

"I took a long bath and washed my hair. I used the soap and the shampoo Mary left for me. I put on the tunnel gown that Mary also left for me. I did not go through all the trouble of taking a bath and shampooing my hair just to put back on the same clothes Iíd been wearing when Vincent had his first attack. Iím not stupid, Peter. I put the tunnel gown on and went straight to Vincentís chamber. I. . . " Catherine gasped as a memory flashed before her eyes.

"Oh, my.. . Maybe I am just a little stupid. Peter, I picked up my street clothes and carried them back with me to Vincentís chamber. I held them in my arms all the way back. I even remember brushing the hair away.í

"What hair, Cathy?"

"The cat hair. . . from Mittens. Sheís made herself completely at home at the office, and is particularly fond of my lap and my briefcase. In fact, Iím always finding my briefcase full of cat rather than paperwork."

"Do you still have your clothes from that night, Cathy? You havenít had them laundered yet, have you?"

"No, they havenít been laundered yet. I havenít had a chance to go to the cleaners."

"Why donít you get them and letís check them out? Maybe the cat has something to do with all this."

Catherine glanced at Vincent who had finally stopped sneezing. "But Vincent said he wasnít allergic to cats. He said they have had them around the tunnels off and on over the years and heís never had any problems."

"When was the last time you were around a cat, Vincent? If itís been a while, it is possible that itís a problem that has just cropped up."

"I donít think so, Peter. Samantha and Geoffrey brought home a mother cat with a brand new litter of kittens just last week -- six of them -- and Iíve been helping the children care for them. I havenít had any problems."

"Well, weíve tried everything else under the sun. What have we got to lose? Get the clothes, Cathy. Maybe theyíll shed some light on the problem."

Catherine opened the bedroom door carefully, ready to catch Mittens if necessary. The cat, however, was lying in the middle of the bed, her blue eyes glaring accusingly at her jailkeeper.

"I promise, Mittens. Just a few more minutes." She sat down on the edge of the bed, petting the catís head. "It kind of looks like I may be sharing this bed with you tonight after all. Darn it."

Catherine retrieved the clothes sheíd worn Wednesday night from the closet floor where she had tossed them upon her return. Thinking that Mittens was preoccupied with her sleep, and not being privy to the sneaky ways of a determined cat, she wasnít prepared for the sudden jump the cat made straight toward the door, and freedom, just as she opened it.

Later on, after rerunning the events of the scant few seconds it took Mittens to get from the bed to the living room, Catherine was almost certain the cat had made it in one leap. Mittens had been lying on the bed, seemingly asleep, when she turned from the closet to the bedroom door. Suddenly she felt something soft brush against her leg, and caught a glimpse of the end of a bushy tail as it disappeared into the living room. She had to have jumped from the bed to the door without touching the ground in between. How else could you explain her speed and the fact that Catherine hadnít see her move at all?

"Mittens! Vincent, catch her. Donít let her out on the balcony."

Catherine rushed into the living room in a panic, only to find her wayward visitor safely ensconced in Vincentís strong arms, cuddling against his chest, purring contentedly. . . and she was inexplicably filled with the urge to strangle a seven and a half pound ball of fluff. It just wasnít fair -- a stray cat occupying the one place she wanted, needed to be.

"Donít let her go, Vincent. I donít think sheíd jump off, but I really donít want to take the chance."

Vincent stared down at the upturned face of Catherineís visitor, two pair of matching blue eyes gazing at one another in curiosity. Mittens purred even louder, and snuggled against Vincentís chest.

"I donít think sheís inclined to leave right now, Catherine. She seems perfectly content to let me hold her."

"Smart cat." She smiled ruefully, thinking to herself, ĎLucky cat.í

"Peter, these are the clothes I wore Wednesday."

Taking them from her, Peter brushed at a stray cat hair, holding the clothes up to sniff. He wrinkled his nose in distaste.

"What is that odor coming from them, Cathy?"

Catherine leaned over to sniff the pile of clothes, wrinkling her nose up in distaste as well. "Itís that darn flea collar I bought for Mittens a few days ago. The guy at the pet store said it was one of the best. It is pretty strong, isnít it."

Suddenly, their attention was distracted from the pile of clothes, the cat hair, and the awful odor emanating from them by Vincent. He was sneezing again -- repeatedly and rather violently!

"Itís not me! Itís not me! Vincent isnít allergic to me!" She whirled on Peter who had also been caught off guard by Vincentís most recent attack.

"Vincent said heís never had a reaction to cats before. What are the chances that heís allergic to just one particular cat?" She turned and pointed to Mittens, who was beginning to get a little annoyed at Vincentís sneezing. "That cat!"

"Cathy, the chances of that happening are as minimal as his being allergic to you. I just donít get it. Nothing here made him sneeze until he came close to you and then again when Mittens jumped into his arms. Were you handling the cat before Vincentís arrival tonight?"

"Yes, of course. She was laying on the bed when I came out of the shower. I stopped to pet her. She was at the terrace door when Vincent arrived. I picked her up and put her in the bedroom. But that still doesnít explain how or why he would be allergic to only one cat."

Peter took another sniff of Catherineís clothes, an idea beginning to form.

"Maybe it isnít the cat. Maybe itís something on the cat. Cathy, take Mittens from Vincent and give him a few minutes to stop sneezing. Take the flea collar off. I want to try something."

Mittens protested loudly as Catherine snatched her away from the safe haven she had discovered. Catherine spoke to her softly, reassuring her that she would let her go back to her newfound friend as soon as it was possible. After several minutes, more than it had usually taken in fact, Vincent finally stopped sneezing.

Taking the cat from Catherine, Peter handed her to Vincent. Mittens wasted no time at all in cuddling back into his strong embrace. Her purring could be heard throughout the room. Lifting her head, the cat seemed to be studying Vincent.

Vincent leaned forward, lowering his head until the two of them were practically nose to nose. Mittens began sniffing his face, and it soon became obvious that she liked this particular human very much. Suddenly, Vincent felt the familiar Ďtickleí that signaled the onset of another sneeze, but when it came, it was mild compared to the earlier ones. Pulling away from the cat, he waited for another sneeze. It was several seconds before it came.

"Just as I thought! Cathy, I think weíve found the Ďculprit.í And it isnít you." Peter held the catís flea collar under Vincentís nose. "Try a whiff of this, Vincent."

Besides its undeniably unique shape, Vincentís nose was also extremely sensitive to smell. He recognized the repugnant odor immediately as one heíd smelled mixed among the many scents associated with Catherine the past few days. At first he had associated it with the everyday odors he knew she came in contact with and assumed it was a new cleaning product or something.

Now, he knew what it was -- Mittensí flea collar. In its pure, undiluted state, the strong odor assaulted his sensitive sense of smell immediately, causing his eyes to water, and his nose to sniffle. Within seconds the poor thing was sneezing so much he couldnít catch his breath -- and Catherine was almost ecstatic!

"Itís the collar! Heís allergic to the flea collar! I didnít put it on her until the day Vincent left to go Below. Thatís why he never sneezed before that. Of all the crazy.. . You know itís funny, but now that I think about it, Mittens had a bad reaction to that thing when I first put it on her. She went around sneezing like crazy for a couple of days, but she eventually stopped. I just figured it must have taken her a while to get used to it."

"Yes, well, itís possible that Vincent might get used to it, too, with a little help and a lot of time, but I donít think we should take that chance, Cathy. "

Catherine grabbed the collar from Peter, flinging it across the floor. "Definitely not, Peter. Get rid of it."

With the collar out of range, Vincentís sneezing slowed, but Peter knew that he wouldnít be completely safe from the allergy until the cat had been bathed. In fact, Catherine would have to shower again, and anything the cat had come in contact with would have to be cleaned thoroughly -- including her briefcase and her apartment. But first there was a little matter of a delayed reunion.

"Cathy, Iíll take Mittens home with me. You can pick her up on your way to work Monday. Iíll see that she gets a bath." He turned her toward the bedroom, giving her a gentle push.

"You go wash your hands, change your clothes, pack a bag, and go spend the weekend Below with Vincent. And whatever you do, donít go near your briefcase! Iíll take care of it."

Throwing her arms around him, she gave Peter a warm hug and a big kiss on the cheek. "Peter, youíre wonderful. Thanks for everything. I love you. Oh, and by the way, what ever you do, donít leave any pens lying around where "Bonnie" here can get at them. She may not have a Clyde to help her, but sheís one hell of a thief."

Leaning up, she kissed Vincent on the mouth softly, her sparkling eyes promising a whole lot more to come. "Iíll wash up and meet you Below. I wonít be long."

He caught her arm as she turned, leaning down to whisper, "Bring your change of clothes Below, Catherine. We can... wash up together." He returned her brief kiss, his eyes, too, filled with the promise of much, much more.

Catherine shivered breathlessly as the world around her tilted and she could only nod in silent agreement, having suddenly lost the ability to speak. Thankfully, her body did remember to breathe -- after a minute or so.

Taking Mittens from Vincent, Peter shooed him on his way as well. "Go on, Vincent. Go wait for Catherine. You know it isnít polite to keep a lady waiting."

Vincent was over the balcony edge and on his way Below practically before Peter had finished. He chuckled softly to himself when he realized that Vincent had forgotten to thank him for his help -- an oversight he was sure the boy would correct as soon as he was thinking straight.

Looking down, he found the cat staring up him curiously, as if waiting for an explanation as to how she ended up with a strange man for company. "Well, girl, it looks like itís just you and me this weekend." He scratched her chin, thus assuring his status with her as friend. "Tell me something, Mittens. Do you like tuna fish?"

Mittens answered him with a soft meow and a slow flicker of her tail, and what he thought looked suspiciously like a bright gleam in her blue eyes.

"Iíll take that as a yes."

EPILOGUE

They were locked in a passionate embrace, their mouths hungrily seeking the taste and textures of one another. His strong body had her pinned against the rock ledge. His hands were splayed, one between her shoulder blades, the other across her well-rounded derriere, protecting her tender skin. The need for air pulled them apart. Vincent buried his face in the warm curve of her neck, unwilling to relinquish contact with her even for a minute.

Her slender arms wrapped around him, her hands slipping lower to cup his buttocks, pulling him hard against her. "Oh, Vincent, Iíve missed you so much." Wriggling against him, she whispered, "Why donít we go back to your chamber so that I can give you a proper welcome home?"

Pulling back, he gazed down at her in amazement. "Catherine, what would call what we just shared if not a proper welcoming?"

Her nails scraped slowly down his spine, as she whispered seductively, "That was just practice, Vincent. Now itís time for the real thing. Weíve been apart almost two weeks! Iíve got a lot of... excess energy to get rid of."

"Then I suggest we stop by the kitchen and find something to snack on." His hand squeezed her shapely backside as if to remind her that he, too, had nails -- and knew how to use them as efficiently as she. "Why donít you return to my chamber, while I see what I can find?" He leaned down to kiss her. "I promise I wonít be long."

"Youíd better not. Iíve been kept apart from you far longer than I ever want to be again. Iíll wait for you in your chamber for ten minutes, tops. If youíre not there by then, I swear Iíll come looking for you." Her hand trailed slowly across his hip, then down to his thigh teasingly. "And I wonít be responsible for what happens."

Vincent shivered as her words conjured up all sorts of pleasurable images of the things that might happen that she would not allow herself be accountable for -- things he would gladly take any and all blame for.

"Ten minutes, Catherine. I promise."

Her wandering hand brushed fleetingly against his manhood as she stepped out of the bathing pool. Catherine dried herself off, then slipped into a big fluffy robe. Tying the belt around her waist, she turned to glance at him over her shoulder, whispering, "You have exactly ten minutes from the time I get back to your chamber. Iíll be waiting in bed for you."

Vincent caught a flash of creamy thigh as she turned to leave. Grabbing a towel, he quickly dried himself off and slipped into his clean clothes, all the time mentally figuring out just how much time he would have before Catherine came looking for him. Letís see it would take her at least ten minutes to get back to his chamber.

*

Catherine gazed down at Vincent, her hand slowly trailing across the broad expanse of his chest. She wriggled against him, cuddling her head in the curve of his shoulder. Vincent was amazed at the contrast her nude body, soft and sleek, was to his hard, lightly furred one and, as always, was pleased beyond measure at the difference.

He could feel her contentment, her joy, at both the reunion they were finally able to have and the fact that they had cleared one more hurdle in their somewhat turbulent lives.

Vincent trembled as he felt the effects their lovemaking had on Catherine through the gossamer-like connection that was still a lovely mystery to them, but which seemed to be growing stronger and stronger every day. Through this connection he could experience the tingling afterglow that throbbed gently through her body, just as he knew she could share his.

He chuckled softly as he thought of the events of the past few days. Catherine heard the slight rumble in his chest and felt him shake slightly, and knew that he was laughing.

"Whatís so funny?" She leaned up and folded her arms across his chest, once more gazing down at him. "Come on, give. I could use a good laugh, too."

"I was just thinking about what Peter said. I canít believe you actually thought I might be allergic to you. That is the strangest... " Catherine placed her hand over his mouth.

"It wasnít such a strange idea, Vincent. At least not from my point of view. Think about it for a minute. The only time you started to sneeze really violently was when you were close to me. What else could I think." The look in her eyes told him she really wasnít looking for an answer.

"What would you have done, Vincent?"

Vincent stared at her, caught completely off guard by her question. Surely she didnít really need an answer to such a question. Then again, she did look a little concerned. Or was it curious. Maybe it was both. At any rate, he hurried to reassure her.

"Iím sure there is some form of treatment for every kind of allergy, Catherine. I would have asked Peter to get it for me and I would have taken it every day of my life from now until eternity if necessary."

"Suppose there wasnít a cure or a treatment for that kind of allergy, Vincent? What would you have done then?" Her voice had taken on a teasing note, and he knew she was finally able to put the whole incident in its proper perspective.

She felt his hands gripping her back, pulling her tightly against him. His warm breath caressed her face as he whispered in all seriousness, "Then, my dearest Catherine, I suppose we would have had to learn to live with my sneezing."

"Are you saying that you would have spent the rest of your life with me in spite of the sneezing?" He nodded slowly, the corners of his mouth turning up in Ďthat wayí again, and this time Catherine did not get upset.

"Vincent, that would be impossible."

The smile he gave her made her shiver right down to the tips of her toes. Slowly, he rolled over until he loomed above her, effectively pinning her beneath his body.

"You should know by now that nothing is impossible, Catherine. Weíre living proof of that." He leaned down to nuzzle the scar just beneath her left ear, and she felt his hot breath against her cheek as he continued.

"Besides, you know what they say." He kissed the scar, gently caressing it with his mouth. "Where there is a will, there is a way." He pulled back just enough to gaze into her eyes, and Catherine could feel the passionate fury of his love. "The one thing I definitely have where you are concerned, Catherine, is will, and nothing will ever keep me from you." He claimed her mouth in a kiss that left her gasping for air, thus sealing his promise.

Vincent buried his face in the warm, sweet-smelling curve of her neck, gently nuzzling. Arching her body against his, Catherine moaned aloud and... sneezed!

"Catherine. . . "

She heard the slight hint of concern in his voice, and knew in an instant what he was thinking -- and in spite of everything they had just endured, Catherine could not help herself. He felt her body shaking slightly beneath his, and realized with a start that she was giggling. Propping himself up on one elbow, Vincent stared down at her, silently demanding an explanation, fervently hoping that things were not starting all over again. It took a few moments, but Catherine finally got her laughter under control and could look at him without laughing. She smiled sheepishly at him as her fingers caressed the well-defined muscles across his back, trailing very slowly and tantalizingly lower and lower.

"Iím sorry, Vincent. . . your hair tickled my nose."

fini