Or in my case, you must become its lab assistant...
Understand that, in my employment with Dr. Crawford West, I never intended to become anything more than a simple extra hand in his laboratory. But the man has a way of pulling you in, of coaxing you to do things you don't want to. He gets inside your head, makes you want him to get inside other portions, as well...
I came to the door of the rather unassuming looking little house, tucked away neatly in the suburban cul-de-sac, set back from the street by a fairly sizeable yard, and a conspicuously high wrought iron fence. There were no basketballs in the yard, nor bikes parked along the street; it was obvious that children steered clear of this house, and that its owners liked that just fine. I rapped on the door three times over a period of five minutes or so before giving up on any kind of response, and turning back down the weed-wreathed path. It was then that the door flew open, its knocker rattling against the brass base.
A man stood there, only an inch or two taller than myself, with a more livid and impatient expression than I have ever seen on a stranger. He was slightly build but intense in every feature, from the stark stare of his dark eyes, to the parenthetical lines that were visible with tension around his thin-lipped mouth.
"If you are here selling cosmetics," he hissed at him, words clipped and precise, flawlessly enunciated. "Or cookies, or magazines, or some other inane product for which I have no use or desire, you have five minutes to vacate my premises before I infect you with the nearest available viral strain."
Stunned, slack-jawed, I could do nothing but blink at him for the first few seconds. This only seemed to anger him further, , and with an impatient sigh he went to shut the door in my face--presumably to fetch the threatened virus.
"Uhr--wait!", I blurted.
He stopped, hesitated angrily, then fixed me again with those penetrating eyes. His features were delicate, and yet capable of expressing such undisguised menace that I wished I could have captured a quick picture of him. Any character actor would have killed for the power in those eyes...
"What?", he demanded, impatient.
I brought out the piece of paper, holding it at arm's length as I quickly explained, "I saw this on the campus job board... you're looking for a lab assistant? Well... that's me."
He gave a short little snort of derision, wrinkling his nose faintly as he studied the length of my body, critical. I felt as if he were sizing me up for spare parts., though after a moment a barely-discernable softness subtly entered his expression. Not smiling, not pleasant, but permissive. He stepped aside, widening the door.
"Come in," he directed, glancing past my shoulder to make certain that no one from the neighborhood was lurking outside, waiting to catch a peek. I gave him an odd look but did as instructed, stepping into the dark foyer alongside him. The door was closed, shutting off all light from the outside world, filling me with a sudden, awful dread. This man, I was suddenly certain, was going to hack me up into little pieces, and I would never be seen again.
"Come," he directed next, tucking his hands neatly into the pockets of his lab coat, striding away from me and down a narrow corridor. The house might have actually been cheery, if he had made any attempt to nest here; instead, it had the look of one who was not only a bachelor, but despised all forms of human contact, female or otherwise. We took the corridor to the kitchen, and then through a narrow doorway, down a flight of wooden steps. The basement, sprawling and brightly lit, spread outward in what must have encompassed more land than the actual upper portions of the house. It was no rec room, but a laboratory that appeared as if it had been put together piece by piece, by a skilled hand.
He stopped as we reached the basement, then turned swiftly to face me, his thin lips tightly pursed. That intensity was back, his eyes boring into me beneath sharp, expressive brows that knew nothing but displeasure and annoyance.
"I work strange hours. You'll be expected at the laboratory at nine o' clock sharp in the evening, and will be permitted to leave at sunrise, the following day. Other hours may be required, but I'll attempt to give you advance warning, when the occasion arises. There's several extra rooms upstairs if you wish to board here, as well, but I must impose strict guidelines as to what portions of the house you're permitted to...'roam through'..." again his eyes traveled my body, clinical and cold. "...and which are off limits. Are we clear?"
Again I found myself speechless, squinting at him.
"Wait... you mean I'm hired?"
"You're the only one who's stayed longer than thirty seconds," he reported, again sniffing his derision. "I don't have much of a choice."
"So much for a warm welcome," I murmured, folding up the paper and tucking it into a pocket. "Where can I put my things?"
"There," he extended an arm, indicating a small, dark recess in the wall; a gray suit jacket was already hung up... presumably his own. I took the next few minutes to put my things away, and slip unsurely into the white lab coat that had been hung up on an extra peg. It fit a little large on me, but under the circumstances I decided it would do.
Crawford was waiting for me beside the door to another room, still looking impatient, as if he couldn't wait for me to do my work and be gone again.
"Uhr... is that blood on your coat?", I inquired worriedly. Without reply he pushed open the door, leading me through.
Another brightly lit area, this one more long than wide, gleamed in chrome and linoleum beneath almost blinding fluorescence. Animal cages of every conceivable size lined the wall, stacked one upon the others, filled with monkeys, rabbits, ferrets, and a number of other creatures I could not identify. Perhaps these were his test subjects.
I asked, letting the door shut behind me. "...And these?"
He stood staring at the animals, his focused eyes boring into them... it was a wonder to me that they didn't shudder. He sniffed again, though I could not imagine what he found so distasteful, this time. When the silence stretched, I pressed again, "Doctor?"
And then suddenly, severely, he pinched his nose in one hand, fiercely closing his eyes.
I was again shocked into silence, watching him furiously recover himself, giving his small nose a vicious rub with one forefinger. It was a terrible sounding sneeze--the likes of which must have hurt him to suppress, and I had to wonder at the why of it.
Another sniff, this time in clear annoyance. He ignored my blessing, and lifted an arm to indicate the row of cages.
"The animals will need to be fed, watered, and have their cages cleaned every day. Certain animals receive special diets and injections, as indicated by the clipboard beneath their ID plates. I trust you won't have any... 'ethical' problems with euthanasia, when it becomes necessary--Ih--khxt!" He stifled again, this time with enough force to bend him forward slightly from the waist. His hand released his nose as he prowled in front of the cages, but hovered only an inch or so before his face, the fingers curled as if to pinch again at a moment's notice. "...for the most part they are to be kept alive, and monitored, but...Ih-khxt!"
There he went again, his expression violently clenching in an effort to contain the sneeze.
"Gesundheit again," I said simply, watching him with a little interest. Okay... a lot of interest. I did say that my tastes run to the unusual, did I? Well, I wasn't lying...
Once again Crawford ignored me, and after a slight sniffle went on about his instructions, crisply detailing all that I would be expected to do. Sniffling had begun to interrupt him every few seconds, as clipped and precise as the rest of the scientist's mannerisms, though it was growing harder and harder for me to ignore.
He began, "Supplies are kept in the back room, alongside the--"
"Do you have a cold, doctor?"
Pausing, he glanced to me, brow deeply trenched. Perhaps it was the whites of his eyes that make them stand out so much--in contrast against the dark, nearly black irises, his gaze can cut like a honed edge.
"You sound as if you have a cold, I just thought--"
He cut me off, "I'm allergic to the animals, if you must know, which is one of the reasons you're being hired, Miss... Miss... who exactly are you, anyway?"
Offering a hand out, I told him, "Evelyn Creed. And you are--"
"Westlate. Doctor Crawford West." He eyed my hand, then took it, giving it a brief, tight shake. Another sniff, then he resumed his tour. That was how it would be with him, I realized... everything a struggle, every step a battle.
I took him up on his offer to board at the house--not so much because it needed a woman's touch, but because housing near campus is extremely expensive, and it seemed private and convenient. I was given the third floor of the house to furnish and live in as I pleased, with strict instruction that I was not to explore any other rooms--especially the basement--without his permission or, preferably, his company. Considering the experiments that he tended to run, and the creepily, morgue-like atmosphere of the basement lab, I was more than happy to oblige him in his almost hermitic privacy.
But there were other reasons I stayed, not the least of which was the pure intrigue the man offered me. He was so cold, so seemingly unfeeling, I had a desire to unlock every secret he possessed. On a more personal level, of course, I also wanted to see him interact more with the animals... but we'll get to that.
When he professed to have allergies, he wasn't kidding in the least. They struck him regularly, and immediately, upon exposure to any furred or feathered animal used in the laboratory. I did most of the handling, limiting his overall exposure, but as the director of every experiment we performed, it was necessary and unavoidable for him to have -some- contact.
His timing was pleasurably predictable, though I couldn't help feel a surge of guilt at his suffering--if that's what it could be called. The man was so devoid of the gentler emotions that it was impossible to tell if and when he was actually upset, or bothered by anything at all. Annoyance and impatience seemed to be his favorite emotions, and ones which he all too readily displayed. There were many times I asked myself why I stayed at all, and then there were times--like that one Saturday--when it became all too clear.
The day did not promise to be very interesting. Night had fallen, and I was in the laboratory, cleaning up a workspace before Crawford joined me for the evening. It was unusual that he allow me down there by myself, but had contacted me over the house intercom shortly after sunset, urging me to begin without him... that he'd be down shortly. We would not be dealing with any animals that day, which led me to believe it would be fairly boring and uneventful.
I heard him coming down the basement steps as I was giving the workspace a final rinse with a disinfectant, not bothering to look up for the moment.
"Are we almost ready?", he asked, immediately earning my attention. His voice was not at all his own--still crisp, still faintly annoyed, but deeper somehow, less resonant. I turned to look, and saw him already dressed in his neat white lab coat, pacing impatiently towards the workstation, examining the set-up work I'd completed. His small nose was visibly pink, as from obvious irritation, but he lacked the slightly watery look to his eyes that usually signalled his allergies were bothering him.
I agreed, "Just about. I was going to measure out the chemicals, next."
"Do that now, then. I'll set up the other equipment." Without waiting for my affirmation he turned away, stalking towards one of the many tall supply cabinets lining the laboratory's walls. I watched indulgently, waiting for what I knew must eventually come: the rigid halt of his body, the precise snap of his hand to his nose, the brief, wrenching seizure of his sneeze...
Except it didn't happen. At least, not like that.
Crawford's footsteps slowed, and he came to a gradual halt, arms relaxing at his sides as his breathing seemed to grow slow and almost purposefully audible. He inhaled and exhaled like that for a few seconds before, with a strength I would not have expected from him, he bent forward, sneezing explosively into his hands. No tight, cinched-off stifled sneeze, but one exceptionally powerful for a man fairly slight and modest of build. It sounded in the basement like a helpless release, a wet and distinctive, "Ih-shhieeh!"
There was a short silence following as he straightened, sniffled, and then exhaled a sigh that was a little tired, a little resigned. Mind you--two things completely new to the man.
"Bless you, Doctor," I called out, preparing to measure up the chemicals necessary for the experiment. I heard the cabinet door squeak open softly, but he didn't respond. That in itself was unusual--more often than not he was quick to mumble at me discouragingly whenever I attempted to bless him.
He returned to me, sniffling as he went, evidently attempting to focus upon the tasks that lay before him... with limited success. Crawford began to speak, commenting on the levels I'd measured into the beakers, when he was obliged to turn away again, giving me a perfect view of his face.
His sneezes were usually so quickly stifled and unexpected that I caught nothing more than the violent, squelched end of them. There was a 'hang time' to them now, and in profile I saw his mouth open, nostrils becoming defined with a clearly irritated flare, forehead crinkled up in preparation, and more expression than I could remember seeing on him, before. A hand started towards his face, but only had enough time to loosely cover his nose and mouth as he again bent forward, releasing another uncharacteristic, "Ih-shhhiieeh!" He seemed to shout it.
The following sniffle was loosely congested, but he did turn back to me.
"Doctor," I sighed. "You really need to do something about these allergies..."
"It isn't my allergies," came the stuffy but no less crisp reply.
"But you're sneezing--"
"I'b sdeezig because..." he grit his teeth, sighed, and then did the thing he hated most, next to that very sneezing: he sniffled. Continuing, "I've..." He couldn't even bring himself to say it, but just stood there, looking caught between ire and embarrassment. How could I not grin outright.
"Come down with something?", I suggested. He glared. "Caught a cold? Got the sniffles?"
That last one seemed to push him over the edge, and with an icy glare the scientist reminded me, "You're very easily -replaced-, Miss Creed." Sniff.
"What? After all the little secrets you've shared with me, through the progression of these experiments?" He looked suddenly surprised--a new and definitely exciting expression on the brilliant young doctor. "Oh, had you forgotten about that? It's a little late to go threatening me, Dr. West... you're just going to have to put up with me and my 'infuriating ways', as I've put up with you for the past several weeks."
He wanted so very much to retort, I could tell. His dark, intense eyes were burning with a passion that bordered on frothing. Before words would come, however, he reeled back a step, squinting his eyes into rapid blinks as his sinus resumed that unbearable, feverish tickling. His expression, fully facing me--though from a safe distance--was one of furious restraint, every ounce of him fighting not to have to sneeze at that moment--or ever, if at all possible. There was not only effort, but a flickering helplessness that overtook his features altogether in the final moments before he finally could hold back no more.
He turned away from me in spite of the distance between us, again managing to get his hand only partway to his face before doubling forward, releasing a terrible, "Ih-SSHHIEEH!"
Crawford's balance was compromised by the raw strength of the sneeze, and he quickly staggered back into a wheeled tray, sending instruments toppling and clattering to the floor. He attacked his nose with a fierce rub of his hand, cursing, "Blasted dusetts!" I could only assume 'nuisance' was the word he'd meant to pronounce. My heart was going out to him, however and, discarding my look of smugness, I went to help him recover from his stumble. He jerked his arm away from me, scornful.
"Doctor West," I sighed. "In all seriousness, you're sick..."
"I am still functional," was the proud reply. He gave a tug to his lab coat, straightening it, and fixed me with those still-powerful eyes. Another sniffle ruined his moment of triumph.
I corrected, "Not if we're dealing with volatile chemicals which, if I recall, we are." Sighing, letting him recompose his wounded scientist pride, I encouraged, "Why don't we wait for awhile... see how you feel in an hour or two. If you're...better... then we can begin. If not, we can always reschedule the experiment."
There was great caution in his expression as he weighed these options, unwilling to postpone any of his research, but realizing with grudging acceptance that I was right--he could do more harm to his work than good, in this state.
"Well?", I pressed, when the silence between us stretched. As always, he refused to give me the benefit of a direct reply, instead lingering on the subject until it seemed as if the idea had been his, all along. He withdrew a white handkerchief from one pocket of the lab coat, angling himself away from me so that I could not see him blow his nose, humorously loud. He'd reached the basement steps by the time he was finished.
"Very well. The experiment can wait a short while. Come, Miss Creed. I don't wish to have you lingering here when I can't supervise your work."
"Of course, Doctor." I couldn't repress the amusement in my voice, and so he just ignored it, holding his wounded pride close to him as he stalked back up the steps with me in tow.
He made it to the top of the stairs, handkerchief now tucked back into his pocket, and began to cross through the kitchen, into the sparsely furnished living room beyond. When I say sparse, I really mean it--the only furniture were those pieces left behind by the previous owner, and these had been covered with sheets the entire time I'd been there--never once uncovered or used. Having never been permitted into Crawford's bedroom, I couldn't imagine what sort of furnishings he had in it.
He had to sneeze again, and the urge came on him so quickly this time that he turned towards me as I was coming up alongside him. Fortunately he did manage to cover his nose, hiding it quickly but deeply into the crook of his arm. Three sneezes were delivered in slow succession, the torment evident in what I could see of his expression. It was not that they were painful or even unpleasant, but he just hated it so very much. At last, something he could not keep under precise control-- something that could not even be pinched away, as if it never occurred. When the last, wet, "Ippftsshhh!", had jerked him viciously, Crawford picked his head up and blinked blearily. There was no fever or wooziness evident... he just had a head cold, and one he had been completely unprepared for.
I sighed, as I had found myself doing so many times before. "...Doctor..."
"What?", he quipped, resisting the desire to sniffle. His eyes were still hot with that raptorial clarity. And then, softly, in a voice I had not dared use with him before, I offered, "Bless you."
The heat of his eyes cooled just a little, his jaw seeming to shift as he grind his teeth behind pursed lips. He was such a study of vicious intelligence and hot temper... and yet he allowed himself to sniffle in such a way that twitched his nose.
"Thank you," he replied tensely, for the very first time, and turned away from me altogether, stalking back into the kitchen.
I could not keep the surprise from my face as, blinking, I followed him back into the kitchen, curious at just how he intended to occupy himself until such it was possible to either scratch or continue the experiment. Understand, Crawford is more the 'wait it out' type of man, where illness is concerned. Do not acknowledge, do not draw attention to, simply endure until it goes away. Curious attitude for a scientist, I'll admit.
He gave me another glance over one shoulder, brow furrowed, as I followed him into the kitchen. "...Something I can help you with, Miss Creed?"
"I make a rather good chicken soup, if you'd like, doctor."
Stopping, turning to face me, he crossed his arms against his chest and gave a slight smirk, imperious. Mind you, it's very difficult to sound imperious when one is speaking through a stuffy nose.
"Is that the extent of your medical expertise, Miss Creed?"
I folded my arms as well. I could be a cast iron bitch if I needed to be, my posture suggested. "Are you ever going to refer to me by my first name?"
"Only if I must."
"Do you even remember my first name?"
He stopped, glaring, and his jaw flinched again as he ground his teeth behind those tense lips. I widened my eyes, affecting a look of open amusement. "You don't remember my name!"
"Don't be ridiculous!" Turning away from me, he snatched the tin kettle from the little hook by the sink, wrestling it noisily beneath the faucet and beginning to fill it. I pursued, smug.
"What is it, then? What's my name?" Lord, I hoped this wouldn't turn into a Seinfeld episode...
"This is insane," he muttered, concentrating on the faucet, and the filling of the kettle.
"It's Angela", I told him. "My name is Angela."
He muttered, "Of course it's Angela..."
And then, in what I must admit was ridiculous delight, I declared, "No it's not, it's Evelyn! You sad, dishonest little man! You can't even lie correctly!"
Crawford reeled upon me with a look of ill-restrained fury.
"That is because," he began. "Science is a matter of precision and truth. I don't have time for your pathetic little games, I---Ih-pssheh!" The sneeze came like a gun going off unexpectedly, allowing him only a split-second reaction time in which to cover his face. Remembering that my duty here was to aid, not torment, I quietly backed off to allow him to recover.
"I'm sorry," I sighed. "Bless you, doctor."
"Nuisance," he murmured again, hand still loosely curled to his nose and mouth as he turned back to the sink. The kettle was jiggled free from the faucet, and tossed unceremoniously onto the old gas range that stood alongside. It issued a soft HssssssPOOF as the burner blossomed to life, beginning to warm the water for tea. Crawford had recomposed himself by this time, using the now-balled handkerchief from his pocket to attend to his nose with short, rough wipes.
"How do you suppose you caught it?", I asked, mindful of my tone of voice. It would do no good to be harsh or mocking with him. "You almost never leave the house..."
With those moody eyes averted and his dark brows stormy, he replied in quiet, "It was an accident. I mishandled a syringe while working on an experiment."
"Nothing serious, I hope...?"
A snort. "Hardly. It was an experiment to see if viruses could be manufactored to attack only subjects fitting certain qualifiers. Those with a Y chromosome, for instance, and specific, synthetic antibodies in the blood. It would permit biological warfare against enemies that would effect only combat soldiers, yet spare women, children, and male citizens who had not been injected with military-grade immunizations." He sniffed again, then took another, almost stabbing swipe with the handkerchief. "It would have been foolish to use potentially dangerous viruses under these conditions, so I worked with something harmless. The common cold."
I thought about this as I watched him, his expression still vaguely displeased, though he was beginning to calm.
"...Only those wth a Y Chromosome... In other words, I can't catch this from you, can I?"
Another sniff. With mingled annoyance and pride he glanced back to me, and I was struck again by the power of those dark, lurking eyes.
"No. You can't."
Well... that changed the whole game, let me tell you.
I could hear the kettle whistling, and rose to intercept it, allowing him to remain leaned up against the wall with his arms tightly folded and his chin tilted down. Retrieving a mug, filling it to the steaming brim, I dropped in a tea bag and let it steep quietly on the counter. Then, turning to face him, I leaned my back up against the refrigerator and stared at him.
The man could make a cat blink, let me tell you. Blink, or run for fear of its life--either one. Even with his nose pink from the abuse of his handkerchief he had a riveting air about him, as if he were capable of pinning you in place with a mere glance.
"You have the most incredible eyes," I told him, realizing too late the way it sounded. What would he think? No surprise dashed his features; he instead looked away in scorn, as if such things were beneath his interest.
"In case you failed to notice, Miss Creed, I'm not precisely in the mood."
I fumed, "You insufferable little bastard. I'm trying to be nice."
"I didn't hire you to be nice, I hired you to assist me in the laboratory." His eyes flashed back to me, vivid. "Speaking of which, since it doesn't seem as if we'll be continuing with the experiment, today, perhaps you should just leave."
"Leave? I live here!"
"That problem can be easily remedied--" He broke off quite suddenly and turned away, tightly pinching his nose in one hand. "Ih--khxt!"
"Save your breath," he muttered, moving past me, knuckling his nose with a quick, aggrivated sniffle, and stealing the mug of tea from the counter. Rather than walk past me again he made a complete circle of the wooden island at the center of the kitchen, stalking out into the living room once again. "I don't wish to be disturbed for the rest of the evening."
To my credit, I didn't exactly disturb him... though I did keep an eye on him from a safe distance. I busied myself on the third floor for most of the evening, until I heard the grandfather clock in the livingroom chime out 3 AM. Hours, still, before sunrise. I crept quietly down the stairs, prowling into the dark livingroom, where I was surprised to see the young doctor sprawled back upon the still-sheeted couch. He had shed the lab coat, but still wore the white dress shirt and simple black tie that always accompanied it. A biochemistry reference book was laid open upon his chest, his faced turned towards the rear cushions... I'd never seen him quite so restful before.
There was an afghan on the back of an old rocker in the corner, and after carefully opening this and relieving it of the settled motes of dust, I laid it over his reclined form. He stirred only a little, turning his face the opposite way, sniffling into the still air. I gathered the book up, opening it on my own lap as I sat nearby... how on Earth did he understand any of this?
He awoke with a sneeze several minutes later, and I looked over to see him slightly curled, one hand covering his nose. Foregoing a blessing, this time, I turned another page in the book as if it made perfect sense to me.
"What are you doing here," he muttered, slowly sitting up. His eyes swept over the blanket as it slid away from his torso and puddled in folds around his waist. His nostrils flared in a long, fairly deep sniffle--one that seemed to last for several seconds. A short cough followed.
"Reading...", I replied..
"As if that makes any sense to you," he coughed, then began looking around, feeling across the couch cushions and under the blanket for something. A sigh as he asked, with growing impatience, "...Where is it..."
"Where is what?"
No time. Crawford lifted an open hand to his face, palm down, and wedged the V between his forefinger and thumb tightly beneath his nose. "Hehppff!" It was the sneeze of a man twice his size, causing his body to tense violently with effort. Without lowering his hand he sniffled, eyes fighting to come open, then bent forward again, unable to stop another sneeze. "Hehppff!"
"Doctor--" I began to rise with a little concern. His hand finally closed in a pinch to his nostrils, holding it firmly and determinedly shut as a third and final sneeze overcame his usually stoic restraint. It was suppressed so violently, I winced at the sudden, vicious, "H'kxxt!" Crawford lowered his hand yet again, exhaustion quickly beginning to overtake him. He was not at all accustomed to this sort of intensity.
"All right", I sighed, slapping my hands down on my knees and then rising swiftly from the armchair. I dropped to the couch and , before he had the opportunity to flinch away from me, laid my palm across his high, cool forehead.
"Get your hands off of me," he snapped, indignant, gripping my wrists with wiry strength. His shirt sleeves were rolled just beneath his elbows, and the sinew of his forearms stood out with tension.
"I'm trying to help, you ungrateful jerk!" I fisted my hands, struggling to pull my wrists free from his grip. He wouldn't let go, but his eyes bore into me.
"I don't need your help, you little minx--I told you already to leave me alone!" We struggled with one another, barely able to budge at all.
And then he kissed me!
Never before have I known such surprise as just then, as his unexpected strength pushed me backwards, flattening me to the couch. My wrists were pinned against the cushions, but without need--I didn't struggle against him, only returned the searching kiss after I'd recovered my wits. I wouldn't even have guessed he knew how to kiss! And yet the passion so clear in his eyes was now manifesting itself in other ways. We devoured one another, my hands clutching at the fabric of his shirt once he'd freed my hands, using his own to brace himself above me.
He tore his lips from mine after several long minutes of this, hauling me upright as my hair fell into a tousled mane about my shoulders.
"You're impossible," he declared, unsmiling, eyes roaming over me with an almost possessive interest.
"You're one to talk."
"You couldn't leave me alone, could you? You couldn't just let me suffer through this damnable thing without interfering. Always interfering!" He gave me a little shake, and I was surprised to enjoy it. I closed my mouth over his again, capping his anger, and we kissed for a few seconds more before the tumult between us was interrupted by the sharp withdrawl of his lips.
"Wait," he hissed, averting his eyes into the darkness, his hands clutched at my upper arms.
"Wait!", he said again, snapping, switching his eyes to the opposite side. I stared at him in frustration, then saw him close his eyes, expression making it clear that an unwanted sneeze was preparing to come. His brow was deeply furrowed, like a man struggling with an unpleasant memory, but his lips had parted to barely reveal the white of his teeth. "Damn it, I can't--" He released one of my arms, using the hand to squeeze his nose shut from beneath. I could hear a quick, quivering breath before, with incredible strength and restraint, he gave in to a powerful, "Hn'KHXT!"
"Crawford," I began as he released his nose, watching him twitch it with a quick, audibly liquid sniff. That was a mistake: it immediately triggered the desire to sneeze, and he had to again shut his nostrils tightly. "Hn'KHXT!"
The feel of his wiry body tensing and shuddering against me nearly sent me unexpectedly over the edge, but I held his collar in my hands, watching him in an awe of expectation. He wasn't finished, that much was clear: another sneeze was hovering, too close to be dispelled and yet not close enough for him to bring it on himself... even if he'd wanted.
"Don't do that next time," I begged him, uncomfortable with saying the words, even though it was precisely what I wanted. He looked back to me, blinking, still unsure and awkward with our proximity.
"Don't hold it in." I released his collar, sliding my hands down his chest and then to his waist. His own hands slid slowly around my waist, relishing the sensation in spite of his obvious discomfort. I began to kiss him--slowly, concentrating--letting him close his eyes and be a willing receptacle to my attentions. Every now and then I would part my lashes open, catching a peek of him in this vulnerable state.
I think he was unaware of my interest in his expression, but it played an important part in the request I'd just made of him. He looked more relaxed than I could ever remember seeing him, and yet his posture was still rigid, unwilling to indulge altogether in my attentions. He continued to softly sniff every few seconds, until at last, slowly, I sat back enough to peer into his eyes from only a few inches away. Crawford's gaze was upon me, studying quietly--no longer critical, but as if I were the result of an experiment that he was looking forward to exploring. His nose twitched again as he gave a slightly more audible sniff, followed by another very soon after. He began to lean back, feeling the sneeze slowly manifesting itself, but I caught his collar again, holding him nearly against me.
"Ah--stay here." I kissed him again, continuing to do so as he began to weaken in preparation for the sneeze. Kisses fell to his lips, cheeks, even the tip of his nose, whch sent him into a brief frenzy of frantic, containing sniffles, and caused him to rub the side of his hand against his nostrils. I reached up, pulling his hand away and placing it on my hip. He was so close; now, there was no escaping it.
His eyes closed, lips very slightly parted. The expression would have been serene if not for the tight scrunch of his brows, and the now regular sniffs which caused his nose to twitch minutely. At last came the turning point, when with a deep inhale his brows arched high, and his breath fell in and out with a soft quiver. "Ehh...," he uttered, the sound coming from the back of his throat. He tried to reach for his nose and I caught his wrist yet again, pulling it down. "...Ehh..."
As he struggled I leaned away slightly, gathering a fresh handkerchief from his lab coat pocket, still resting nearby. Crawford kept trying to reach for his nose, each time meeting resistance as I pulled his hand away, replacing it at my waist. The flare of his nostrils caused his nose to wrinkle, head lolling back slightly, and he exhaled another urgent, "...Ehhh..."
I folded the handkerchief, holding it ready in one hand, then used the tip of my other finger to tease him the rest of the way to a sneeze. Soft little strokes were applied to the tip, causing his breathing to deepen considerably... and then, gently, I stroked the sensitive septum between his nostrils. Once... twice... and on the third slow stroke he suddenly lost control.
He gave a huge inhale, bristling with surprise, giving me only a moment close the handkerchief protectively over his nose and mouth. Though muffled, the sheer force of the resulting sneeze nearly toppled him into me, his hands tightening at my waist as he released the potent, pent-up,
His body at last went weak against me, and I took his shoulders gently, reclining him back against the sheeted pillows of the couch. There was no restraint this time, though he did reach for the handkerchief to assert some level of control.
"You need rest," I told him gently, rising from his lap as he reclined in full. I pulled the afghan over him, and stared into the smoldering darkness of the eyes that were now upturned to me. And then, with a wry smile, "You're stressed..."
"But there's more to learn, Miss Creed," Crawford said, sniffling a final time, beginning to shift so that he could gaze at me in appreciation. His hand reached out, the fingers that were so able with chemicals and syringe stroking my cheek with the delicacy of an artist.
I smiled, folding my arms to gaze back down at him with refreshed interest. "It will keep," I reassured him. "This is one experiment that can be explored over time..."