Part Three

   I experience a sense of deja vu as I approach the bathroom door. I am home earlier than I was last night, and this time I come without smelling of other people. I was not in the mood to go dancing tonight. Crawford spent at least half of the day in his room, sleeping a troubled sleep. None of us have contacted a doctor yet; we are waiting to see if it blows over soon. Now I wonder if it is going to, as I pause just outside of the beam of light cast onto the floor by the open door. I can hear harsh coughing inside, and I realize that Crawford is getting physically ill, throwing the little contents of his stomach up into the toilet.

    Crawford throwing up...I cannot make the mental image appear, and I do not much wish to.

    I turn away, moving back down the hall. It is probably his fault that he is sick, anyway. I slip into my room, toeing off my shoes and kicking them carelessly aside. I stand before the mirror on my dresser, gazing at my reflection's eyes as I begin unbuttoning my shirt. The noise Crawford is making is much fainter in here, so perhaps it will not keep me awake.

    I turn away as I send my shirt flying towards the pile that is growing steadily bigger around my laundry basket. Soon I'll have to take it in to get cleaned. We have a washer and dryer here, of course. Nagi uses it for his things and Farfarello's. Crawford and I take our laundry elsewhere to have someone else clean it for us. Why the hell would we want to clean our own clothes? Crawford takes his regularly. I take mine when I realize I have nothing else to wear. Judging by the pile, that time is drawing near.

    I wriggle out of my slacks and send them after my shirt, fishing around on my bed for my pajamas. They are not there; apparently they have fallen onto the other side of the bed. I sigh, crawling across the mattress and reaching down to pick my pants up. The shirt is too far away and not worth the effort of stretching to get it. I pull the pants on and sprawl aross my bed, enjoying the softness of the sheets against me. I close my eyes, quite willing to lose myself to the dark oblivion that is sleep.

    I lie there, hovering on the edge, for countless minutes. It is with frustrated resignation that I finally give up trying and sit up. I cannot relax enough to pass out. This is mildly annoying.

    I slide out of bed, padding out of my room and pintedly ignoring the sound of running water from the bathroom. Instead I make my way into the den and flop on the couch, one hand searching for and finding the remote. I flick the television on, content to channel surf. Halfway through our three hundred channels, I give up. There is nothing on at this time of night except for infomercials. I gaze at the darkened screen, debating my options.

    I am hungry. That is enough to decide my immediate course of action, and my legs carry me to the kitchen. There are some leftovers in the fridge from dinner. I was not around to help them eat, so my portion is left in the styrofoam box. I pull it out and carry it to the counter, rummaging in a drawer for my fork. I find Farfarello's first and toss it back in, uninterested in using anything that is his. Who knows if his mouth is the only place he's put it? I finally find mine and slide the drawer shut, digging into my meal ravenously. I eat with a single-minded intensity, absently noting that the meal is not as good when it is cold. Beggars can't be choosers, though, and the microwave is on the other side of the kitchen.

    I pass the fridge to throw the empty box away and my eyes stray to the calendar. My eyes trace today's entry, taking in the words I wrote early this morning. Nagi had paused on the way to the fridge this morning to study them. I know he is curious, but he will never ask. Farfarello did not comment, either, but then, I don't think he gives a damn about the calendar. I would give a lot to know what Crawford thinks of it. He spared it a brief glance this morning when he finally pulled himself out of bed at eleven.

    Thoughts of Crawford inevitably turn towards the man's current whereabouts, and I wonder briefly just how long he has been in there. I open the fridge, taking in its contents. Finally I pull the water jug off the shelf and close the door, carrying the drink to the counter. I lift down a cup and fill it, then sip at it, gazing absently at the countertop. After a long moment I pause, lowering my cup from my mouth. Giving a sigh, I reach down a second cup. I don't know why I'm doing this.

    I fill the second cup and put the jug back, then finish my own drink and push the empty glass aside. I lift the second glass and head out of the kitchen, mentally grumbling about why I'm bothering. I approach the bathroom and open the door enough for me to step inside. Crawford is kneeling on the ground, leaning to one side so that he is supported by the cabinet under the sink. One hand rests on the rim of the toilet seat; the other arm is lightly wrapped around his stomach. His breathing is uneven and his back is to me. I expect a greeting or acknowledgement and receive none. It takes me a moment to register that he did not see me coming, nor did he hear my entrance.

    "I didn't know you had a thing for porcelain," I say, and there is a subtle change in the tension along his shoulders at the announcement of my presence. "Kinky."

    ~What do you want, Schuldich?~ Even his mental voice sounds tired.

    "You're keeping me awake." I step forward and perch on the side of the tub. He tilts his head slightly, opening his eyes enough to gaze at me. Maybe it's just the light, but he looks incredibly pale and worn out. "Has anyone told you lately that you look like shit?"

    He says nothing, probably hoping that a lack of response will cause me to lose my interest. How can I lose my interest if I don't have any to start with? I don't even know why I'm here.

    I reach out, extending an arm to offer the water. His eyes fall on it but he makes no indication of moving to take it. I sigh, pushing myself off of the side of the tub to crouch on the ground. I press the glass against his hand.

    "It isn't poisoned." He still doesn't take it, the ungrateful bastard. I lift it to my lips, taking a sip. "See?"

    His lips move as if he is going to respond and then he is leaning forward, rocking onto his knees as he begins gagging into the toilet. I watch him for a moment, the hacking harsh enough to make my own throat hurt. I'm going to guess he is past upchucking food and onto the stage where all that comes up is stomach acid, judging by the sound. I wait until he is through before offering the cup again. This time he takes it and sips carefully at it. I know it must feel good to his ruined throat. He reaches up, flushing the toilet, then begins to untuck himself from his position. He uses the cabinet to help as he rises and he stands at the sink, rinsing his face off.

    This explains what he was doing in here last night.

    ~Go to bed, Schuldich.~

    I don't expect any sort of gratitude, so his quiet order comes as no surprise and does not bother me. I rise from my crouched position, flicking hair that has spilled over my shoulders behind me. "I'd be there already if you hadn't kept me up, toilet hugger," I retort, brushing past him. I return to my room, stopping just inside the doorway to listen. I can hear the flick of the light switch and the soft padding of footsteps as Crawford makes his way down the hall. I do not move until I hear the click of his door.

    As soon as I hear it, I move towards my bed. I drape myself across it, letting my head sink into one of my pillows. For some reason, sleep comes easier now.


    The phone rings.

    On its second ring, Nagi and I look up slowly to gaze a each other. Crawford is in bed still, asleep. It has been three days and he has not shown any signs of getting better. I have started leaving cups of water in the bathroom for him before leaving for the evenings. Don't ask me why. Maybe it's because he's almost pathetic he's so sick. He has not lost a shred of his pride, but this ice man who can control so many things- including our lives- is being controlled by something he cannot fight.

    Four rings. I realize we are both waiting for Crawford to appear and pick it up.

    Five rings, and he's not here. I stand and cross the room. Before I can pick it up, it stops. I look back at Nagi, who is watching me, then leave the room. Crawford is going to have to be woken up, to call back. Our contacts don't like it when they're ignored. I am passing Crawford's office when I realize the door is wide open. Crawford is standing by his desk, phone to his ear. I wait outside until they are done talking. Crawford hangs up and sits down in his chair, rubbing his eyelids with his fingers.

    "I was coming to get you," I tell him.

    "I heard it," he answers. He sounds tired.

    /Crawford got it,/ I send towards Nagi. /He made it to the office to answer./

    ~Can we take on another job with Crawford ill?~ Nagi wonders. Again I debate whether he is concerned for Crawford's health or the success of our team.

    /Do you think they'd take a no for an answer?/ is my response.

    "In three days we will leave here and travel to Ashita, where we will stay four days to watch over Fuwigama Touya. He will be receiving some coveted information then and we are to make sure no one else gets it except him. Doubtless, there will be people trying to get hold of it. We will be watching him until it is processed correctly and will bring it back with us."

    I lift a finger in the air, making slow circles with it. "Another exciting job," I declare. "Just don't puke on Fuwigama."

    Crawford gives me a cold Look for that. "I am calling a physician," is his answer, and he turns the chair so he doesn't have to look at me anymore.

    "And Crawford caves," I toss at him as I leave the room. I find Nagi again and lazily sprawl in my chair. He is watching me as I poke at my breakfast. The scrambled eggs are cold. Gross. I flick one of them, watching as it flies halfway across the table. It bounces and I arch one eyebrow, watching it as it makes its way towards Nagi like a tiny tennis ball. He stops it midbounce with his mind before it can make it onto his plate and I watch as it sags to the table. I give the rest of my plate a long look.

    Bouncy eggs. What the hell was that chicken on?

    I carry the plate to the trash can and dump it. As I rinse, I tell Nagi about the mission. He accepts it with almost bored resignation. It seems the only jobs we are given these days are ones like these. We have lost interest for them. We need something with more of a challenge...something more amusing. One of these days, the Council will have to find us someone to work for that will present us a chance to exercise ourselves.

    As I am placing my dish in the dishwasher, Farfarello enters, finally choosing to come in search of food. Nagi opened the door for him earlier, but the Irishman was entertaining himself in other ways and was not ready to come to breakfast. Now he sits at the table and serves himself. Nagi is finished and rinses his plate off. As he does so, I close the dishwasher. I smirk at the look he sends me as he opens it again to put his plate in.

    I am in the den when Crawford approaches the kitchen ten minutes later. I look up from where I am taking up the entire couch to call a warning to him: "Don't eat the eggs." Whether he chooses to listen to me or not is his own problem, and I turn to channel flipping. Most of what I pass are soap operas. You've got to appreciate the guts it takes to be on a soap opera. How many actors and actresses are willing to degrade themselves so thoroughly? I finally choose one and settle down to watch, letting my brain ooze out of my ears to pool around me.

    At some point Crawford joins me to read the newspaper. Near the end of the show, where the main man's love is professing herself a lesbian in love with his sister, the doorbell rings. Crawford rises and leaves to answer it. I watch the last few moments to see the man's stunned reaction, then turn the television off with a quiet snort. The lady's announcement was no shock to me. I look up as Crawford returns to his chair. He is holding a small pill bottle. It appears the physician prescribed him something over their call. It is quite handy to have prescriptions delivered to us- and so promptly. I watch as Crawford takes a pill, swallowing it easily with his coffee. As soon as he sets the bottle aside I pluck it up, reading the name. It is a simple antibiotic.

    "Are you dying of some unknown disease?" I ask, turning a grin on him.

    "He says it is a flu," Crawford answers.

    I sit up and flop backwards so my head is at the other end of the couch. "You'd better hope it isn't contagious," I tell him. "If I get it, I promise to make your life a living hell."

    He lifts one eyebrow at me, ever so slightly. "Do you have to be sick to do that?"

    I laugh. "You're such an ass."

    He turns back to his newspaper and I stretch, propping my arms under my head. As amusing as a sick Crawford can be, I find myself hoping the pills help. Drinking coffee alone is no fun. When the sun wakes me each morning, I only get up to turn the pot off and dump it. I suppose I could save myself the trouble and just stop setting it up each night, but it's part of the base routine of this household. Crawford used to set it up, but I took over for him the night I gave him the Athlon.

    "Does the Council know you're sick?" I ask. The question comes out of nowhere, and I pause as the words hang in the still air. Crawford looks up from his paper, meeting my gaze. The Council is a group of four men who rank even with those at the top of Estet. They are in charge of putting the agents together in groups and controlling those of us with gifts. They were the first people I saw when I was brought to Rosenkreuz; they are the first everyone sees. They make a lasting impression, embedding fear into the hardest hearts. No one forgets them. No one crosses them without dying a most painful death.

    Crawford considers the question a long moment before answering. "They will know now. All who call in for physicians get reported."

    "And those deemed unfit for work will get replaced," I add, slower. I know that from personal experience. When Nagi sent me through the wall that time, I was out of work for almost four weeks. Schwarz was given a temporary fourth number to finish the mission we had been in the middle of. I remember the doctors warning me that I had to get well quickly or the Council would decide I wasn't worth the expense and effort and would just terminate me. Crawford and I gaze at each other in silence before my mouth stretches into a smirk. "You'd better hope those are damn good pills, Crawford."

    He does not reply but returns to reading.

Part 4