Part Four

    Images blur against each other, harsh colors and soft undertones swirling together in a mix I cannot make sense of. Voices whisper in my ear to be heard over the screaming in the distance. Everything twists against itself, consciousnesses weaving into a puddle of gooey nonsense. Now and then it pulls apart, separating itself to make a clear image that lasts for just moments. Someone's voice is pulling at me, urgent and excited. Look, look. Look at what? Look! I feel myself turning, can see the colors fading to darkness as something tries to make itself known. Look, look! I am looking. Something starts to materialize, dark streaks against a pale oval. A face? And then everything vanishes in a sharp red glare, and order is restored to my thoughts as my waking mind draws up its shields.

    I crack open an eye to send a baleful glare in the direction of the window.

    I really hate that sun.

    I groan as I roll over in bed, reaching for the covers to pull them over my head. My hand slides only across the material of my pajamas, and I manage to open an eye to see that the covers are nowhere on my bed. I guess I kicked them off in the night. Grunting in displeasure, I settle for burying my face beneath my pillow. Ah...Cool darkness...

    A soft noise reaches my ears, pushing its way through the pillow to get to me. I frown, eyes sliding open. It comes again, and I consider it, slowly pushing back the pillow. Clink? That is the sound dishes make. I push myself up, crawling to the end of the bed and climbing off. I rake fingers through sleep-tangled hair as I pad out of the bedroom, making my way down the hall. A mental poke comes back with nothing and I feel myself speed up, interested.


    I stop inside the doorway of the kitchen, gazing in. It _is_ Crawford. He is standing at the counter- fully dressed!-, pouring himself a mug of coffee. The sight seems so strange, and normal. He is awake. For a moment it is as if the past several days haven't happened, as if he was never ill. He turns, sensing my presence, and his eyes meet mine calmly. That tired edge that has been lingering to his face is less severe, and I know that he has gotten a full night of sleep. Amazing. Two days of taking drugs and he's popped back. I can feel my mouth twitching into a mix between a grin and a smirk as I move from the doorway. My day has gotten its bonus back; the sun has returned to being useful. I stop beside him, reaching up to open the cabinet. I pick the nearest mug and lower it. I send a sideways glance at Crawford as I pluck up the coffee pot, pouring myself some as I speak. "I suppose they pay those doctors ungodly amounts for a reason."

    "We are paid more than they are," Crawford answers. He even sounds better, if a bit distant. Those drugs must have been good indeed.

    I take a large sip of my coffee without thinking, distracted by analyzing Crawford. Ah, life rewards stupidity. It is hot enough to scald my tongue and I wince. Christ, it's not like I _needed_ those tastebuds or anything. Crawford is on his way out of the room, falling back into the routine he broke when he fell ill. I touch my tongue lightly with a finger, mentally blaming Crawford for the pain. I'm feeling wide awake now. My nerves and senses have been jolted to an alert state from that thoughtless swallow, so I feel no remorse for dumping the rest of my coffee down the sink. Crossing my arms over my chest, I move to the doorway. I am in time to see Crawford shut the door and return down the hall with the newspaper. He brings it to his chair and sits.

    He doesn't immediately unroll it. Instead, he lets it rest in his lap and lifts one hand to hover in front of him. I watch, curiosity peaked, as he slowly curls his fingers one at a time. When he has a fist, he opens his hand and does it again. Something about his expression

    It is odd enough that I feel the need to comment. "It's a hand, Crawford."

    He doesn't answer me. Instead he unrolls the newspaper and begins to read. It's like playing a child's game...If I can't see you, you can't see me. If I don't talk to you, you won't talk to me. Bah. I'm an itch, Crawford. You can't ignore me and think I'll go away. I can just sit here and wait for you to notice. At some point, you're going to have to scratch.

    I wonder if I have the patience to wait that long.

    "If you have nothing better to do," Crawford finally speaks up, "you still have to pack for tomorrow."

    "Later, later," I answer, flicking my fingers in dismissal. "It's almost a shame that you're feeling better. I would have liked to see Fuwigawa's face when you vomited on his fine clothes."

    Crawford lowers the newspaper, giving me a clear view of his clean shaven face. I can feel an alarm going off in my head, can see that something is very wrong by the hollow look behind his eyes. Even so, I can feel my smirk widening on my lips as I wait, debating what response he will come up with. "You seem a little restless, Schuldich," he says, smooth and calm. "Find someplace else to expend your energy. I am sure there are plenty who can afford you and keep you occupied."

    A faint twitch of the lips, a slight narrowing of the eyes, and a subtle tightening of the face.

    Something ugly twists in my stomach at his words and I realize that my jaws have clenched. I can feel my smirk wavering, trembling between a thin-lipped look of harsh disapproval and a sneer of cold amusement. Don't answer him. Don't say anything. He'll see it coming and will just have something to say right back. Don't, not when something's wrong and you don't know what it is. "Jealous?" I ask, my mouth finally firming into a teeth baring smile. My words are quiet but still carry. Flickers of memory are dancing behind my eyes, avoiding my attempts to swat them away, and suddenly I feel nauseous. "You don't seem to rank among those that can."

    Crawford sets aside his newspaper and gets to his feet. He moves towards me, stopping beside me in the doorway as his eyes meet mine. Despite the serene stoniness of his face, the blankness behind his gaze is easy to see. I stare back at him, feeling my fingers twitch. He is right there and it would be so satisfying to crunch his face with a solid punch. I can feel the bone giving beneath my hand, can feel the blood running over my fingers. "I pity them," Crawford says softly, lifting his brows faintly. "I am going to the gym. Interested in going?"

    A flicker of a smooth, bared chest flashes in front of my eyes- followed by a hand calmly brushing back bangs stuck to skin by sweat. I can feel my heart skip a beat.

    "No," fuck you, "I have better things to do."

    The brows lift a smidgen higher. "Like pack?" With that, he turns and moves towards the door. I watch him go, expression giving way now that I am not looking him in the face. Jade eyes narrow to slits as I glare at his back and I can feel my mouth twisting into a dark scowl. He does not look back as he steps out of the house, and I almost wish he had. As soon as the door is shut I lift a hand, pressing it to my mouth as nausea rolls in my stomach.

    There's a problem with living with the same person for a long time...They tend to learn what eats away at you best. They learn what wounds to prod, what words to speak, what innuendos to drop. I know this the best and whittle away at my teammates, dancing right at the edge of cruel humor.

    Crawford, on the other hand, has never stooped to grab up something from the past to fling in my face. He has never stepped back and tossed up a reminder that can stop me dead in my tracks. He knows which buttons can and cannot be pushed. So why the hell now? Why the hell with that?

    That...Proof, proof that I could be controlled. Proof that I would give in, would turn myself over to those I refused. Proof that pride would dip aside for sanity. I had known, even then, not to say yes. I had been approached by many offering money and drugs in exchange for my body. I turned them all down systematically, angered more than flattered that so many were interested. It was almost a year after the offers started that I finally caved, that I finally gave in to one man with some powerful drugs. I let him have me, and Crawford had been there when it was over. He was there with the Council. He was the one who executed the stranger while the Council dragged me from the bed, taking me to Rosenkreuz even as I struggled to dress.

    Both they and I paid dearly for their way of getting me into their clutches. They were angry it had taken so long to get me and I was angry at them for thinking they could own me. Hateful defiance almost destroyed myself and the gift they craved, and Crawford had watched it all quietly, had watched as they forced their ways on me and struggled to beat me down. He had been invited to watch so that he would get to see me and understand the trouble I would be when assigned to him. They had thought they would be able to control me. They had thought that they could spill enough blood and take away enough that I would cave. Fuck them if I did.

    Crawford knows better than to remind me of that!

    Sometimes I think I hate him.

    I rake my hands through my hair, fingers digging into my scalp. I take several deep breaths, struggling to calm myself. It isn't working. I can see ice blue eyes staring into mine, a gaze I cannot tear myself free from. Old fear twists and wriggles inside of me, fighting to rise up and swallow me. I am stuck- I am stuck and I cannot get out. Memories- memories and thoughts. Just as tricky. Just as sticky. I cover my face with one hand, balancing myself against the wall with the other. I cannot control my breathing anymore; it is rapid and harsh. These memories are too strong to escape. Crawford...You shouldn't have touched this!

    Hands are steadying me and I'm struggling against them, seeing those icy eyes boring into my face. Something cold and wet is pressed against my cheek. It is enough to startle me into a brief moment of clarity. It is Crawford. He did not leave- he has come back. He is offering a cup, and the hand on my shoulder lifts and turns, exposing a pill. My medicine. I take it from him, swallowing it with a large gulp of water. Everything is splintering around me as I struggle to remain in the here-and-now, struggle to see honey-brown eyes instead of blue. He gazes back at me, unreadable. When things begin to blur and swirl I turn away from him, struggling in the direction of my bedroom.

    I do not even bother to shut the door or grab the covers from the floor as I sprawl on the mattress. Not even the sunlight across my face can stop my Athlon, and I can feel the tight fear coursing through my veins cool and fade as everything around me drops away.


    When my eyes slide open again, the room is lit faintly. Bleary eyes slowly focus on a form in front of me. It is Nagi. He is crouching beside my bed, calm eyes trained on my face. "You're not getting sick, are you?" he asks, simply.

    Sick...It takes a moment for me to place what's going on before I remember. My mouth curves into a tired smirk. "Worried that it's contagious?" I ask, voice slightly slurred as the aftereffects of the medicine lingers. He does not respond. I gaze at him for a moment in silence, letting my thoughts fall back into place. At length I look towards the doorway and the light that is coming in from the hall. The door is mostly closed to prevent too much light from entering. A thoughtful move, or a habit? "What time is it?" That's better...My speech is more distinct.

    "Seven thirty," Nagi answers. "Dinner is here."

    I tilt my face further into my pillow until I can only see him out of one eye. "Just now?" I ask. Dinner usually comes earlier...At least an hour earlier.

    "Crawford called the catery and told them to delay it until now." I digest that slowly. I'm not stupid enough to assume Crawford delayed it just because I was going to be knocked out. There has to be another reason that he would alter the schedule of the household. So what is it? News about the mission? What? Nagi rises to his feet. "Are you going to join us?"

    I consider it. I have not forgiven Crawford for that remark he made this morning that so violently threw everything out of whack, but a job and a unit like this does not need forgiveness. Grudges are acknowledged and ignored so that the group can keep functioning. When I returned from the hospital after Nagi sent me through the wall, we went on as usual. We do not speak of that time because it does not matter anymore what it was about. It does not matter because we are still functional. That is why I sigh and push myself up on my arms. "Whatever."

    He leaves and I climb out of bed. I tug the sleeves of my pajamas into place from where they have ridden up onto my shoulders and pad out of the room after my teammate. He is seated by the time I get there and the three are serving themselves. Crawford and Farfarello look up at my entrance, acknowledging my presence. Then Crawford returns to serving himself. I seat myself, looking towards Farfarello. He studies me a moment longer before lifting his fork again and sliding the prongs along his plate. I feel my nerves stand on end at the noise it makes and all movement in the room stops as the rest of us mentally cringe. When he has reached the end of his plate he lifts it and moves it back to the other side to start over. The fork stops abruptly halfway and Farfarello slowly looks up, towards Nagi.

    "No, Farfarello," Nagi says.

    Farfarello's hand relaxes, dropped from Nagi's warning hold. He taps his fork thoughtfully on his plate before turning to his meal with an almost satisfied air.

    Damn Irishman. He's leaky and he's noisy.

    I rub my hand across my eyes before plucking up a dish to serve myself. With thirteen hours of sleep right behind me, I doubt I'll be getting any tonight. Great. There is nothing good on television in the middle of the night. It looks like a trip to the video rental store is in order.

    Dinner is relatively quiet; the only noise is that of our utensils. I am not hungry and spend the last half of the meal sliding my food around on my plate to make faces out of it. Farfarello watches, and Nagi looks over for a few moments before turning away with detached amusement. Crawford has nothing to say, and I do not know nor care if he appreciates my artistic ability. Crawford finishes first and clears his things away, setting the dishes neatly in the dishwasher. My eyes stray towards him before I realize they are moving and my gaze settles on his back as he works. As he turns to leave the room, our eyes meet briefly. He scans my face for a moment in silence before continuing wordlessly out of the room.

    It's not like I expected him to say anything. I've learned not to expect anything from Crawford.

    Nagi takes his dishes away and waits the extra few moments for Farfarello to finish. I prop my elbow on the table, perching my chin on my palm to study my plate. The face I have created would have made a good jack-o-lantern decoration, with jagged teeth and triangle eyes. I allow myself a brief grin. I am easily amused, am I not?

    At last I take my plate away, passing Nagi on the way to the garbage can as he goes to the door. He stops in the doorway, looking back. I can feel his gaze on me. ~Will you be all right?~ he asks.

    /Will I botch up the mission tomorrow, you mean?/ I return, tossing him a smirk over my shoulder. I flick long bangs out of my hair as I turn back to my work, using my fork to scrape the contents of my plate into the trash can. I give both the utensil and the dish a final shake before heading towards the dishwasher.

    ~That, too,~ is his response.

    /What concern,/ I mock him, mental voice dry with amusement. He leaves, somehow satisfied with the exchange. I close the dishwasher with my foot and leave the room. I'm feeling a bit grungy, so it's pretty easy to decide my next course of action...Shower, Dress, Movies. My towel is on my floor under the window, though I don't really remember tossing it in that direction. I leave my room and almost collide with Crawford as he heads down the hall, a folder tucked under his arm. We stop for a moment, gazing at each other as if sizing each other up.

    I half-expect Crawford to move first, but he does not. I drape my towel over my shoulder and step forward, brushing against him as I cross the hall to the bathroom. "I don't like you," I inform him simply, turning to close the door.

    He meets my eyes briefly, speaking before the door closes and blocks him out. "You're not supposed to." be joining me for coffee tomorrow morning.

Part 5