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Ishh!” Ioan sneezed and sniffed miserably, tossing aside yet another spent tissue. He loathed getting sick, especially when he was filming something. He always felt like he was inconveniencing the cast and crew, so unless he couldn’t find the energy to drag his arse out of bed, he was always on set, ready to film.

“How you doing, Ioan?” His wife bent over him, touching his forehead in a mothering sort of way.

He grinned a little. “My fever’s gone. I think it’s just a matter of sneezing it all out.”

As though he’d said some magic words, the intern/gofer that had been hired for the summer was by his side. “Can I get you anything, sir?”

Ioan admired the girl’s politeness, but since she’d been on set for a month, he felt her formality was misplaced. “You can call me Ioan, dear. No, I’m fine.”

The girl flushed scarlet and moved off. Alice watched, amused. “I think the gofer has a thing for you, Ioan. I’ll bet you 20 bucks that she would go nuts if you touched her hand.”

“And if I kissed her cheek?”

“She’d pass out.”

Ioan smiled. “I’ll take the kiss bet. Once my cold’s cleared up.”

On cue, he sneezed again. “K-chh!

“Bless you.” Alice said, wincing, “Sounds nasty.”

Ioan sighed. “I hate these things. I’m always afraid I’ll give it to someone else, no matter how careful I am.”

***

Et-chh!” Harold Lowe muffled his sneeze into a handkerchief before turning back to the task at hand; namely, bringing the survivors aboard.

“Bless you, Lowe.” Mr. Lightoller was by his side, helping a young girl aboard. “You feeling all right?”

“Might be coming down with something, sir.” Lowe admitted, “Last night…well, the cold seeped into me.”

Lightoller nodded, understanding. “Your voice seems to be going, Lowe. As soon as you’re done here, go take a rest.”

“Thank you, sir.” Lowe murmured, sniffling a little. He and Lightoller worked in silence for a few minutes. Then Lightoller looked back at him.

“You were a good man last night, Lowe. Going back for survivors.”

Lowe felt a stab of guilt. “We waited too long. I could have rescued more. If I’d been a little quicker…”

“But you went back,” Lightoller placed a hand on Lowe’s shoulder, “More than anybody else did. And you rescued six people.”

“Five,” Lowe corrected, avoiding Lightoller’s eyes as he grabbed the arm of another woman, “One died during the night.”

“Still, that’s five more than there would have been, had it not been for you. And, from what I hear, you rescued the swamped boat A. Not much, I grant you, but it was a help.”

Lowe jerked away from Lightoller’s hand. Lightoller’s shock faded when the younger man pulled out his handkerchief again. “Eh-tish! Heh…heh-chh!

“Bless you.” Lightoller smiled. “Go off to rest, Lowe. You’ve done enough for one day.”

Lowe nodded his thanks and left the deck. He was amazed at Lightoller’s drive. He was older than Lowe, had been on top of the overturned Collapsible B, stuck in that freezing water for hours, and he didn’t even seem to be tired. Meanwhile, Lowe had been in a proper boat, and had only touched the water with his hands. And he was the one with the cold?

“Mr. Lowe?”

A soft voice caught his attention, and he turned to see who it was. He recognized the redhead he’d rescued, the only female he’d found. “Yes, miss?” he said, rubbing his nose with the handkerchief.

“I just wanted to thank you. For saving me.”

He smiled. “I did what I needed to do. I’m just glad we got to you in time.”

She touched his arm. “You’re shivering. Are you…?”

“A bit of a cold,” Lowe said, “That’s all.”

She placed a cup in his hands. “You gave me a cup of tea when I came aboard. I just got this one from the cook. You should have it.”

He looked at the young woman, her eyes heavy with grief, but clearly determined to find a way to recover from this tragedy. He blinked rapidly and gave a small smile. “Thank you, Miss…”

“Rose Dawson.”

“Miss Dawson.” Lowe sniffed, hoping she’d attribute it to his cold, and sipped the tea. She moved away, and he allowed the tears to come to his eyes. He hoped she’d be all right. All the survivors. And he prayed no one else was suffering from a cold as bad as the one he was clearly coming down with.

***

Ih-shi!” Kevin Shepard ran a hand under his running nose and tried to hide the fact that he was shivering. Of course, he knew that it would be impossible to hide it from…

“Kevin, if you’ve got a cold, you should just come out and say it, mate!”

Kevin rolled his eyes and turned towards his macaw/Rottweiler. “Waddlesworth, the day will come when you actually are bought by somebody, and if you shout things out to them like you do to me, you will get your furry little neck wrung.”

“Big talk from a man who’s inadvertently quoting Hamlet.” The parrot said.

“What on earth do you mean?” Kevin said, puzzled.

“You know, ‘To be or not to be’!” Waddlesworth said, imitating poor Kevin’s congested voice before dissolving into laughter.

“That does it! Out!” Kevin yelled, grabbing the bird in both hands and tossing him into the room where he put the bad dogs for a ‘Time out’. No sooner had he done so than he bent forward and sneezed again, with an extra two for good measure. “Tisha! Keh-shh! It-chh!

“Um…is this a bad time?”

Kevin jerked up at the voice in the door. A young woman was standing there, holding a pet carrier in her hands and looking rather awkward. He managed to put on a smile and straightened up. “Not at all,” he said, managing to sniff silently, “What can I do for you?”

“Well, um…I’ve heard such good things about this shelter from friends, and I thought I’d give you a go. See, I’m moving to America, and Kelly here is getting up there in years. I don’t know if she’d be comfortable with the journey. I really don’t want to have to give her up, but none of my friends can take her. Since you look after each animal personally, I thought you could give her a nice home to spend her days in until she either gets adopted or…”

Kevin nodded sympathetically. “I understand. May I see her?”

The woman set the carrier on a nearby table and opened the latch. “Come on, sweetie, let the man see how pretty you are.”

Kevin’s face changed from sympathy to horror when, instead of a small dog, out came a slim, graceful cat instead. “Bugger,” he murmured.

“Sir?” The woman was understandably shocked at his swearing.

“I’m so sorry, Miss, but Second Chance doesn’t take cats.”

“What?” she was astonished and clearly a little hurt.

“If we could, we would. But we pride ourselves on one-on-one interactions with the animals, and I can’t do that because I’m…”

Then he felt it; the small, slight itch that indicated that the cat’s fur was already doing its job. Or was it his cold? Either way, he snatched a tissue from the box sitting on the table and pitched forward. “Ke-tchh! Chh!

Comprehension dawned on her face. “You’re allergic to cats?”

He nodded, blushing a little. “Rather badly, I’m afraid. And even if I left them in the care of my other workers, their fur would still be everywhere.”

The woman nodded. “I’m so sorry to have disturbed you. Come on, Kelly, we’ll try to find another place.”

Kelly glanced at Kevin, clearly angry he wasn’t admiring her. She turned back towards her master, but not before deliberately swatting her tail in Kevin’s face. “Bad kitty!” the girl scolded, shoving the cat into the carrier. “Forgive my cat, sir. She’s a bit vain.”

He nodded understandingly. “It’s all right. Just…just get her out of here.”

The woman was gone in moments. Kevin seized another tissue and sneezed roughly. “Ah-CHH!” Sniffling, he leaned back against the wall. Chloe would get off work soon and come to visit. Maybe he should call her and ask her to bring some cold medication. Damn that cat! As if having an unexpected cold wasn’t bad enough!

***

Solomon brushed a finger under his nose, attempting to keep the vague ache he felt at bay. His beloved Gaenor was asleep beside him, and he didn’t want to wake her up. He smiled at how prettily her skin glowed in the light. He knew what he was doing was wrong, but he loved her so much…

Chtt!” The sneeze was quiet, but not quiet enough. Gaenor stirred and looked up at him. “Bless you. Is the hay getting to you?”

He smiled a little. “No, no, it’s fine. But I…I think I might have a cold.”

Gaenor reached out and touched his forehead. “You are rather warm. Where do you think you got it?”

“No idea. I haven’t been caught in the rain and no one in my family is ill. But I’ve been feeling tired and cold for the last few days, and I recently started sneezing.”

As if to prove his point, another tiny sneeze escaped him. “Hit-chh!

Gaenor smiled and handed him a handkerchief from her apron pocket. “Bless you. You should probably go home and take care of yourself.”

“But I love being here beside you. And when I leave, we won’t be able to see each other again for a few days, in order to avoid suspicion.”

Gaenor gently took his hand and pulled him down beside her. “Then stay close to me for a few minutes. I’ll keep you warm.”

He smiled, rubbing the handkerchief against his nose. “I’d like that.” he said, nestling against her. A few minutes later, though, he needed to pull away and sneeze three small sneezes into the cloth. “Kitchh! Eh…et-chi! Chk!

“Bless you.” Gaenor slipped her arms around him. “Did I ever tell you that you have a sweet little sneeze?”

“As far as I knew, you’d never heard me sneeze until tonight.”

“Well, you do. It’s very fitting. You’re such a quiet, shy boy; somehow it makes sense that your sneeze would be unobtrusive and soft.”

Solomon blushed a little, then sniffed. “Maybe you’re right. I should go. I don’t want you to get sick too.”

“How sweet of you.” Gaenor leaned forward and pecked his cheek. “Well, take care of yourself, Solomon. When I see you again, I don’t want to hear a single sniffle out of you.”

He smiled and started to dress. “You have my word on that.”

When he left a few minutes later, he rubbed Gaenor’s handkerchief in his hand and pitied any person who didn’t have someone as wonderful as her to look after them when they were ill.

***

Pip stood in the pouring rain, letting it spatter across his face, making him shiver twice as hard. His life had gone to hell. His fortune was due to a convict, the woman he loved had left him, and everyone hated him. On top of all this, he appeared to have come down with a cold. So why not just stand here in the rain and make it worse? Maybe he’d catch pneumonia and die, which would make things so much easier for everyone.

A carriage dashed by, splattering him with even more water. “That’s it,” Pip croaked, “douse me. Soak me straight through. Turn me into a block of ice so I will no longer cause pain or receive it. Let me end this miserable li…ftchh!

The sneeze sent a spasm of pain through his throat, leading to five minutes of harsh coughing. Pip sank to his knees in the street, thinking he was going to hack up a lung. Surely this was a sign that he was getting sicker, that the end was nigh?

His skin felt like ice, and he realized that he’d probably done enough damage to himself for one day. He got up and staggered back to his room, which was now almost completely stripped of furnishings except for a table, chair, bed, and several bottles of wine, which Pip fully intended to polish off in the next few days, maybe even the next few hours. Numbly removing his boots and coat, Pip fell across the rock-hard mattress, shivering uncontrollably. Assuming he had the unfortunate luck to not die in the next forty-eight hours, he would sell what little he had and find his way back home. With luck, Joe would take him back in. But the guilt he would feel for how he had mistreated his old friend would be worse, Pip thought, than just dying here and now.

He felt a familiar tingling in his sinuses. Too weak to lift his hands, he turned his head and sneezed into his shoulder. “Ih-cha!

He felt something pop, and a warm, hot, liquidy thing began to run down his face. “Bugger it all to hell!” Pip groaned when he lifted his head and saw the bright red stain on his shirt. Blood dripped onto the mattress as Pip forced himself to dig in his pockets for a handkerchief. The one he found was soaked through, but he pressed it against his face anyway in an effort to stop the bleeding. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, the mattress would be even harder to sell now. Who wanted a blood-stained mattress?

***

“That’s exactly what I was looking for!” Reed Richards said ecstatically, wrapping his arms (literally) around the mattress and tugging it out of Ben’s hands, “Thanks for finding it for me.”

“No problem, Stretcho,” Ben said genially, “But I still don’t know what you need it for.”

“I’m working on a new cleaning solvent that will get stains out of anything. A mattress is as good a place to start as any.”

“Cleaning supplies? Isn’t that a little…well, beneath you?”

“Find a need and fill it, as they say,” Reed answered with a laugh, “Sue’s been complaining, so I decided I’d…I’d…”

Ben cocked his head at Reed’s hesitation before realizing what was happening and jumping out of the way. A moment later, Reed sneezed. It was extremely muffled—sounding more like “sst!” than a real sneeze—but it still caused Reed’s arms to slacken, releasing the mattress. Sue poked her head out the door as soon as the mattress hit the floor. “Reed, are you trying to do work? I told you to stay in bed!”

Reed gave an almost imperceptible sniff before answering. “Sorry, Sue. But I heard you complaining yesterday, and thought I’d start working on a solvent before it slipped my mind.”

Sue shook her head affectionately before grabbing his arm and attempting to pull him into the bedroom. “I appreciate the sentiment, dear, but your health comes first. Besides, you know how dangerous it is for you to work when you have a cold.”

Reed watched his arm stretch towards the bedroom like a slinky with a certain scientific interest. “I know, I know…but I can’t help myself.”

“You’re dangerous to you and everyone around you, Reed. We’ve learned to duck every time we see your nose twitch. At least in bed your limbs won’t cause major damage if they shoot out.”

Reed grinned sheepishly. “I’m working on that, you know. It’s not so bad if I stifle it. I go limp instead of snapping.”

“It’s a start, at any rate,” Sue said, coming back into the hall and grabbing Reed by the shoulders, “But I’d feel a lot safer if you were back in bed.”

Reed sighed and allowed Sue to push him towards the bedroom. Sue, noticing this, squeezed his shoulders affectionately. “If you must continue to think and calculate while you’re ill with the sniffles, try to find a cure for the common cold. It will kill two birds with one stone.”

Reed’s eyes lit up. “I think I’ll take you up on that. If you could bring me a microscope, I can sneeze on a slide and analyze the virus, then…”

“Whatever you want, Reed. But you have to stay in bed!”

Reed smiled wryly. “Aye-aye, ma’am.”

***

Captain Horatio Hornblower woke up to a pounding on his door, which only exacerbated the pounding of his head. “Yes, yes, come in!” he growled.

Bush stuck his head in the door. “Captain, there’s a ship approaching, bearing English colors. We’re signaling to it now.”

“I’ll be up in a moment.” Horatio said vaguely. Bush nodded and closed the door again. Horatio slid out of bed, groaning as the cold air hit his skin. He’d been ill for three days now, although none of his crew had figured that out yet, to his immense relief. Up until now, it had been fairly easy to hide his condition; it was cold enough outside that no one thought twice about his shivering, and he could cover up his coughs by clearing his throat. Today, however, the congestion had hit, and that was going to be a lot harder to hide.

Even as he thought this, an itch sprang up in his nose. Swearing quietly, he opened his trunk and pulled out a handkerchief. “Ah…Ah-ngsst!

He sniffed wetly, wiping at his nose. If he got through today without anyone figuring it out, it would be a miracle. Sighing, he got dressed as quickly as he could and came up on deck.

The blast of cold air as he came outside made him shiver again, and his nose started running. Pulling out the handkerchief, he held it to his nose, hoping the crew would think nothing of it. “What news, Mr. Bush?” he asked, keeping his voice low to hide the congestion.

“It’s the Stalwart, sir. They’ve been chasing a French ship through these waters and they want to know if we’ve seen it.”

“Well, I haven’t, Mr. Bush,” Horatio snapped, his cold making him testy, “and none of the watches has reported seeing a French ship for five days. Signal them back in the negative, for God’s sake!”

Bush, a little chagrined, turned and barked orders to signal the ship back. Horatio took the opportunity to creep to the railing of the ship, and, on the pretext of looking over the Stalwart, to stifle a few sneezes.

Nkt! Hsst! Heh-knnk!

He looked up just in time to see the Stalwart signaling back. He recognized “Thank you”, but the rest was incomprehensible to him. Wiping his nose once more, he turned back to Bush. “Well, Mr. Bush?”

“They thank us for the news, and are inviting you over to supper for an exchange of news.”

Horatio blanched. If he left the ship, he could keep his cold hidden from his men for another few hours. But if he went, he would risk passing it on to another crew. Which was more important, the opinion of his men or the health of the service?


Sighing, he made up his mind. “Thank the captain for his hospitality, but tell him I must decline. I am…indisposed.”

“Sir?” Bush said, confused.

Horatio grit his teeth and confessed. “I’ve had…a slight cold for a few days now, Mr. Bush. It hasn’t been too bad until now, but I’ve started to s…sn…”

Right on cue, his nose started itching once more. Cupping the handkerchief around his face, he allowed the sneeze out unmuffled. “Eh-shiew!

“Ah.” Bush said, looking sympathetic.

Horatio nodded, feeling himself flush. “I do not wish to pass it on to the Stalwart, especially in the middle of a chase.”

Bush nodded and turned away to order the signals. Horatio dabbed at his nose and began pacing a little, feeling miserable. Bush would no doubt encourage him to go to bed, or at least visit the doctor, then word would get round and all the crew would know. He wasn’t sure which he feared more, their pity or their scorn.

“Sir?” Bush interrupted his reverie, “I’ve signaled as you asked. They understand and will be moving on.”

“Thank you, Mr. Bush.” Horatio said, bracing himself.

Bush leaned in and spoke in a murmur. “Be honest with me, Horatio. Do you feel well enough to work?”

Determined to keep up the fight for as long as possible, Horatio nodded. “It’s just a bit of sneezing, really.”

Bush looked him over, then nodded. “All right. But if you pass out on deck, I will have very harsh words for you once you wake up.”

“W-what?” Horatio said, taken aback.

“The men will assume you’re just reacting to the cold air,” Bush continued, glancing around to make sure no one was listening, “So you can go about your business as usual. But I beg you sir, if you start feeling weak, go inside to rest. Pretend you have papers to write if you must, but go inside to get warm.”

The anxiety in Horatio’s heart lightened. As long as he didn’t give himself away, no one in the crew would know. He smiled a little and nodded to Bush. “Very good, Mr. Bush,” he said, starting to move away, “I’ll be aft. Keep me informed.”

“Of course, sir.”

“And Mr. Bush?” Horatio called over his shoulder, smiling despite his illness, “Thank you.”

Bush made a motion that might have been a shrug, as if to say “What are friends for?”

***

Hob groaned and lay his head on the counter, relieved to find a cool surface. He couldn’t stand it; one minute he had been shivering convulsively in the storeroom, and now he was burning up. Maybe he could just sit here like this for a minute. After all, there wasn’t anyone in the shop, and as long as…

“Oi, mate, get your head off the counter!” Nob said affectionately, slapping Hob on the back, “Who’s going to want to buy anything if they have to see your ugly mug up close and personal?”

Hob lifted his head off the counter regretfully, trying to put on a brave face. “And who’ll buy anything from you, anyway? You’ve got the salesmanship of an egg.”

Nob chuckled. “Let’s leave it at that. Get the inventory finished?”

Hob nodded, reaching for the clipboard. At that moment, the persistent itch he’d felt ever since he got up this morning finally manifested itself. He barely had time to press his nose into his shoulder before he released a strangled “H-shhh!

Nob turned round at the sound. “Did you sneeze or is there a gas leak?”

Hob dabbed at his nose, which answered the question. Nob arched an eyebrow. “Not getting sick, are you?”

Hob hesitated, then settled for the non-committal, shrugging as casually as he could. Nob’s eyebrow was now in danger of disappearing into his hair. “Come on, love, fess up,” he said, his tone gentle despite his skeptical look, “You’ve come down with something.”

Hob pulled out his handkerchief. “All right, I have. But it’s just a cold. No need to put me to bed.”

“Do you really want to stand around infecting the customers? That’s not good for repeat business.”

Hob felt a twinge of guilt. “True. But…we’ve got our music lesson today. I don’t want to miss it.”

“There are other lessons.” Nob put an arm around his shoulder. “Go on, get to bed. I can manage here, and I’ll tell Annie to reschedule.”

“But…”

“She’ll understand. Off you get.”

Hob knew better than to protest. Sniffling wetly, he rubbed his nose and gave Nob a pathetic grin. “Promise you’ll come up to take care of me?”

“And catch this from you? Are you joking?”


Hob still had the presence of mind to arch his eyebrows. “But once you’re sick, I can kiss you with no repercussions.”

“There is that.” Nob conceded with a laugh. Reassured, Hob went upstairs.

***

“William!” came a voice from downstairs, “William, you have a visitor!”

William couldn’t repress a groan as he sat up in bed. If he was perfectly honest with himself, he’d been hoping to have a break from Parliament business while he was down with this cold. At least he could rest assured that Barbara was informing guests as to his condition, and thus wouldn’t have to come downstairs and play host. He did give his hair a quick brush with a nearby comb in an attempt to look relatively presentable, though.

Footsteps approached the bedroom. “I’m sorry, William,” Barbara began apologetically, “but he rather insisted.”

“Of course I did!” William Pitt said emphatically, stepping inside, “I need to make sure my closest friend isn’t on death’s door!”

“Billy!” William exclaimed, admittedly pleased to see him, “You didn’t have to take time out of your day to visit me. I’m just a little under the weather, is all.”

“Nonsense, Wilber,” Pitt smiled, “I always find time for my friends. So, how are you, really?”

“It could be worse,” William acknowledged, “My colitis is staying relatively quiet, at least. No, the doctor thinks this is just a cold.”

“Rushing around in the rain, trying to drum up support, can do that to a man,” Pitt observed affectionately, “Just don’t forget to look out for yourself while you’re trying to save the Africans.”

“I’m here in bed, aren’t I?” William countered, “And it wasn’t Barbara who convinced me to stay in bed for the duration.”

“I’m amazed. Apparently married life has knocked some sense…”

“Pardon me…” William interrupted, grabbing for his nearby handkerchief and clamping it firmly over his face. “Eh…HEH-PSHHHT!

 “Bless you.” Pitt and Barbara said simultaneously.

William managed to laugh. “Thank you.” he dabbed at his nose, “And you wondered why I’m so hesitant to take snuff.”

“Are they always that…explosive?”

“I’m afraid so,” William sighed, “The greater the irritation, the more powerful the sneeze. And this cold has been very irritating.”

“My sympathies,” Pitt said, “Would you like some company, or would you prefer to wallow in misery and rattle the windows by yourself?”

“I always appreciate your company,” William smiled, “But I wouldn’t want to keep you, if you have important business to attend to.”

“I think I can spare a few minutes,” Pitt said, taking a seat, “When do you think you’ll be back on your feet?”

“In a…a…AT-KSHHHHH! a few more days. Three at the most.” William sniffed and rubbed his nose, “I’m a little concerned that the sneezes will linger, though.”

“Bless you,” Pitt steepled his fingers, eyes twinkling mischievously, “You know, that could actually be a benefit.”

“How, pray tell?”

“Think about it. The moment someone stands up to oppose you, one well-timed sneeze could blow them backwards.”

William shot him a mock glare. “They aren’t that bad, Billy.”

“Perhaps not, but I do think they’d cause quite the echo.”

“I’ll concede that,” William said, “I wish there was some way to quiet them without resorting to pinching my nose and feeling like my head was about to pop off.”

“Why try to quiet them, Wilber?” Pitt teased, “Why not attempt to bring it into fashion? You can be very persuasive when you put your mind to it; convince people that loud sneezes are the latest thing in society.”

William rubbed away an impending sneeze. “Perhaps I might as that. Someone convinced the world that snuff is an excellent thing to inhale, after all.” He leaned back in bed and indulged the image. “I do have to admit, punctuating a statement with a loud sneeze might be quite the conversation tactic.”

***

ARSHHH!” Lancelot sneezed towards the ground before sniffing wetly. He noted the sudden silence around the fire. “What?” he snapped.

“Nothing.” Bors sounded rather smug. Lancelot glared murderously at him and looked back into the sputtering fire. Damned rain. He knew he couldn’t blame it on the Romans, but he still couldn’t help but feel this was all their fault. If they hadn’t sent them on this miserable final mission, despite the fact that their servitude was over, he could have been on his way home, not sitting out in this weather. And he most certainly wouldn’t have this…

HERESHHH!” The fire shot out a few sparks in protest, and Lancelot scrubbed a hand under his nose, knowing it wouldn’t do much good. He could almost feel the others staring at him again, and he quickly stood up and moved over to a nearby tree, shuddering as the rain struck him full in the face. Safely out of their sight, he sniffed thickly and grit his teeth at the sound. He should have known that pain in his throat wasn’t just from the grit in the food they’d been eating. And considering how forceful his sneezes were, the rest of the knights would know that he was ill. Just what he needed.

“Lancelot?”

Arthur’s voice came from behind him. In no mood for conversation, Lancelot spat out a “Go away.” Undeterred, Arthur leaned against another side of the tree, out of Lancelot’s vision.

“There’s no shame in being ill, you know.”

“There is when you’re the only one who seems to have the blasted thing,” Lancelot snapped, before another sneeze bent him double, “GSHHH!

“Keep sneezing like that and we’ll all be ill soon enough,” Arthur answered, his tone light and teasing, “Perhaps that will satisfy you.”

“Shall I start with you?” Lancelot answered, in no mood for banter.

Arthur chuckled. “I’d rather you didn’t. I’d like my commands to be understandable.”

Lancelot wrapped his cloak around him, the damp cloth doing little to keep out the cold. “Then I suggest you rejoin the healthy soldiers. You don’t want to spend too long around my infected air.”

“Please, Lancelot,” Arthur said more gently, “None of us will hold it against you. Illness is a part of life anywhere, but especially during difficult times. The men may mock, but you mock them just as much when they’re ill.”

“Not when they want to suffer in peace.” Lancelot growled, hoping Arthur would take the hint.

Arthur sighed. “You can’t keep this up the whole way. We’ll miss your camaraderie, blunt though it may be.”

Lancelot just sneezed again. “ERRCHHH!” Other than another wet sniff, he didn’t say anything. Perhaps later, when the sneezes were a little less frequent, he’d feel more inclined to be talkative. Or perhaps when the rain finally passed and the fire would provide actual warmth, he would rejoin the others and at least try to look pleasant. Until then, however, he was content to remain where he was.

Arthur’s foot snapped a twig, and Lancelot knew he was moving away. “Suit yourself, Lancelot,” he said as he left, “But you’ll have to come back over here eventually. Until this mission is over, you can’t escape us that easily.”

***

“I really don’t think this is a good idea,” Oberon said, looking at the piles of chains and ropes, “Can’t you take the day off?”

Scott Free, dressed in his Mr. Miracle getup, sniffed and tucked a sodden handkerchief into a hidden pocket. “The stunt debuts in five days. The more I practice it the better.”

“But not when you’ve got a cold,” Oberon protested, “One mistimed cough or sneeze could mess up everything!”

Scott’s eyes darkened a little. “Believe me, Oberon, I’ve had experience with doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. I wouldn’t take the risk if I didn’t think I could handle it.”

Oberon instantly looked chagrined. “Sorry, Scott. Sometimes I forget about what you went through. You know yourself better than anyone. Let’s start practicing.” Scott nodded and let Oberon start chaining him up, giving a wet sniff every now and then so as not to sneeze on his manager. As he started to shackle Scott’s arms, Oberon glanced at Scott again. “Just…promise me you’ll stop if you start feeling too bad, all right?”

“You have my word,” Scott smiled, “In fact, if this practice run goes well, I’ll call it quits for the day and take myself off to bed.”

Oberon looked relieved at that. “Let’s get this done, then!”

He finished chaining Scott up, then opened up the iron box and guided Scott inside. “How long do you think it’ll take to escape?” he asked.

“About three minutes,” Scott said, doing some quick calculations. “Five at most if my cold refuses to cooperate.”

“Five minutes. Ok. Count to one hundred, and then you can start. I need a minute to spray on the ice.”

Scott’s body shivered involuntarily at the mention of ice, but he just gave a little smile and motioned for Oberon to close the box. Then he started counting in his head. One…two…three…

He was somewhere in the 40’s when his nose gave a rather insistent twitch. Closing his eyes and tensing his muscles, he let the sneeze out through clenched teeth. “Knnt-chh!” He’d trained himself to sneeze like that from very early childhood, finding every possible way to avoid drawing attention to himself as he tried to make his escapes. Other than throwing him off-balance if he sneezed while moving (which he tried to do as little as possible), it had suited him well so far.

After the sneeze, he shook his head with another sniff. Where was he? Forty-five seemed as good a bet as any. He resumed counting, trying to focus on the numbers rather than on how fogged his head felt or how the chains were chafing more than usual. This was exactly why he detested getting sick.

Ninety-nine…one hundred! Scott sighed with relief and set to work undoing the chains. They were always the easiest part; at this point, he’d been chained up so many times that he could do it without thinking. The iron box was similarly easy, containing a secret panel in the back that the audience couldn’t see. The hardest obstacle to overcome was the ice that encased the box, but thanks to a small Apokolips device embedded in the palm of his suit, he’d be able to melt it within a minute or two. Then it was just a matter of slipping through another hidden panel and dropping down from the ceiling, to the surprise of the crowd. A pretty simple trick, when you came right down to it. Opening the hidden panel, he pressed his hand up against the ice, nodding his satisfaction at the small hissing sound. Even with the small distraction, he would probably be out of there around his three-minute estimation.

Another shiver ran down his spine. Being in such close proximity to the ice was making him feel much colder than he’d been a few minutes ago. It was also making his nose run, and he was thankful that no one could see through the iron box (unless Superman happened to be having an evening out, he thought with a wry smile). By the time he’d made a clear handprint in the ice, he had to sneeze again. “Mmph-pshh!” Drawing out his handkerchief with his free hand, he held it to his nose, trying to keep a modicum of control. Mind over matter, he reminded himself, pressing his hand even harder against the ice.

Apparently his mind wasn’t in the mood to exert itself, because shortly thereafter, he sneezed again. “Nx-shht!” And again; “Nmp-tt!” And again; “Sh-sst!

“Scott!” There was a hand grabbing his arm. “Scott, are you all right?”

Scott looked up blearily and saw Oberon holding onto him, worry etched all over his face. Glancing around, he saw that he’d at least managed to melt through to the other side of the ice. He was still half-in the box, but right now, he’d consider this a victory.

Kxx-sheh! You were right, Oberon. I…Mpnessh! I’m in no condition to be doing this right now. It’s too cold for my body’s liking.”

Oberon helped him out of the box and brushed flecks of ice off of the costume. “Go on home, Scott. I’ll clean up here. Give me a call in a day or two and tell me how you’re feeling. We may have to postpone the show until you’re feeling up for it.”

Scott nodded. “Thanks, Oberon. I should li…li…lit-sst! listen to you a little more often.”

“Ah, forget it,” Oberon waved a hand, “You probably would have been fine if it wasn’t for the ice. I’d be the one saying that to you if that were the case. Now get home before I phone your wife and make her drag you there!”

Scott laughed at that and headed off to the dressing room. He laughed again when he caught sight of his absurdly red nose in the mirror. Imagine going out on stage looking like that. Oberon was right; he should take his mind off performing until he was back on his feet. That didn’t mean he’d give up work entirely, though—he did have a fair bit of paperwork for the JLA to go through. Might as well try to be productive.

***

“Your devotion to your job is admirable, Lukas, but you’re going to wind up infecting the entire office if you keep this up.”

Lukas Gold looked up balefully at Montero. “I need to prepare for this case,” he said, rubbing at his rapidly reddening nose with an even more rapidly dilapidating handkerchief, “It goes to court in five days.”

“Are you sure you’ll be at court in five days?” Montero asked, grinning slightly.

“I caught this earlier in the week. It should have run its course by the time I need to go before the judge.” Lukas sniffed thickly and looked down at his papers again.

Montero chuckled. “If you say so. Just do me a favor and promise me you’ll try not to get anyone else sick. If you’re really feeling generous, you’ll promise me you’ll go home and work on this from the comfort of your own bed.”

“I’ll think about it.” Lukas muttered, searching for one of the witness testimonies. After a moment, he heard the door close, leaving him in relative peace. Montero had a point; he could just as easily get most of this work done from the comfort of home, surrounded by blankets and hot tea. But now that he’d arrived at the office, he felt obligated to put in a full work day. Maybe tomorrow he’d call in sick.

As he looked over the testimony, marking the relevant bits of information, his nose gave an uncomfortable prickle. Sighing, he picked up the handkerchief and held it to his nose. “Eeehhh-gshh!” Holding the cloth to his nose to catch any lingering mucus, he noticed that the sneeze had caused him to poke a hole in the paper he’d been reading. Rolling his eyes, he patted it down and continued reading. Yes, this bit here could be useful. If he could just get a doctor’s confirmation that the man had been genetically enhanced…

Heehhh…” The hitch in his breath gave him just enough time to get his handkerchief at the ready. “Igxt!

A thump and a series of rustlings told him that he’d just knocked several papers off his desk. He’d deal with them later; he was so close to formulating his defense. He picked up his notepad and started jotting down notes. Get doctor’s report. Double-check effects of the drug Alelma. Confirm precedent in Grey vs…

Ihhh-atshh!

Lukas blinked with a mixture of horror and amazement at the sheer size of the mess he’d made on his notes. He grabbed a tissue from the box on his desk and tried to wipe it clear, but it just smeared the ink. Ripping it off the pad, Lukas quickly recopied his notes so he wouldn’t forget his key points, then stuffed both the tissue and paper into his pocket to keep from contaminating the cleaning staff. Enough was enough, it seemed. Even his body was telling him that he’d be better off working from home. He started gathering up the relevant papers, giving his nose a sharp rub every few seconds to keep from ruining those as well.

Montero didn’t look at all surprised when Lukas poked his head in the door and said he was leaving. “Get well soon, Lukas. Next time I see you, I expect you to be able to pronounce your n’s.” Lukas just waved and headed for the elevator.

The colder temperature of the parking lot made him sneeze once—“Aaahhh-cheh!”—the sound echoing off the concrete walls. Jumping into his car, he quickly placed his papers on the passenger seat and turned on the car, desperate to start the heater. Once he was on the road, he allowed himself to relax a little. Working from home wasn’t so bad, after all, and if he did it right, it might not even qualify as a sick day. Smiling a little, he turned on the radio and fiddled with the dial, trying to find a classical music station. A little bit of piano music would ease away the rest of his stress.

***

Sir Benjamin Merryweather rubbed at his eyes and nose before putting his hands to the keys once more. He started to play, trying to remember his favorite pieces from memory, shaking his head violently every time a certain melody floated through his head. No, he would focus on Mozart and Bach, and not on the memories of playing that piece as a duet, hearing the rustle of skirts and a warm, airy laugh.

His nose twitched, and he quickly pulled out a handkerchief to catch the sneeze. “Ker-chh!” Rubbing his nose irritatedly, he stuffed the handkerchief back in his pocket and continued playing. He had no idea where this infernal head cold had come from, but it was clear it would be taking some time to leave. The question was, how to deal with it in the meantime. He could ask the cook to prepare a variety of soups, and to season the meat with herbs that would clear the congestion and were supposedly good for curing colds. Of course, he would need to have a warming pan in his bed for the duration, and make sure the fires were kept burning in the draftier rooms. He’d have to make sure all his handkerchiefs were clean as well; he didn’t want to have to resort to napkins like he had last time.

Another itch in his nose brought him out of his reverie, and he sniffed harshly to keep the sneeze at bay. As the itch died down, the music he was playing finally registered with him, the cadences and key changes all too familiar. He slammed his hands down hard on the keys to stop himself, but the memories rose unbidden. Loveday slipping her arms through his, resting her head on his shoulder. The floral scent of her perfume, interchangeable with the flowers she liked to keep around to “liven up the place.” The way she looked at him as though he was everything she could want. But most of all, he remembered the last time he saw her, and the pain in her eyes as he cast her out of his house. As much as he tried to tell himself that he’d done the only reasonable thing, there was a part of his mind, and an even greater part of his heart, that ached painfully whenever she came to his mind. Benjamin pounded on the keys again, hands balled into fists. Why must she have been born a De Noir?

Keh-shh!” As he raised his head from the sneeze, he realized he was trembling. Clearly, he was in no condition to be up and about. Rising to his feet, he decided to give orders to the kitchen before crawling into bed. Perhaps the combination of fever and a sleeping draught would allow him to forget, however briefly, Loveday’s face.

***

“Mr. Vaughn? Are you all right?”

Eric Vaughn snapped out of his reverie and gave an apologetic grin to the man in front of him. “I’m fine, Jeff. Just a little distracted. What is it?”

“The first crop of interviewees are here for the personal assistant position. You said you wanted to interview them personally.”

“Right,” Eric got to his feet and took the folders from Jeff, “After everything that happened, it seems like a wise precaution.”

Jeff just nodded, wisely not wanting to continue the discussion. “They’re all waiting out in the hall near conference room C. There are seven so far.”

“Thanks, Jeff. I’ll…I’ll…” Eric quickly yanked out a handkerchief and pressed the folders to his chest to keep from spilling them. “Ih-sheh!

“Bless you. Are you all right, Mr. Vaughn?”

“You’re repeating yourself, Jeff. I’m fine. I’ve just got a bit of a cold. Really, I got off lightly; with all the stress of someone trying to kill me, I could have wound up having a complete nervous breakdown.”

“Yes, well…” Jeff shifted nervously, “Just…take care of yourself, all right? Good luck with the interviews.”

As Eric continued towards conference room C, he turned Jeff’s words over in his mind. He did try to take care of himself, both physically and financially. But sometimes, things didn’t go as planned. How had he been so negligent of his companies that David had managed to steal so much from him? Clearly, he was going to need a more hands-on approach. And to do that, he’d need the right sort of assistant. Turning down the hall and spotting the people waiting there, he quickly tucked the handkerchief away and smoothed his jacket. The interviewees weren’t the only one who had to make a good first impression.

The first four interviews were hit and miss. One was clearly distracted by his appearance and spent most of the interview gushing about how she “loves your work” and “how sorry I am that someone tried to kill you” (understatement of the decade, really). Another seemed competent but unqualified. The third was too eager to please, and the fourth was passable, but didn’t really capture Eric’s attention. All the while, he sipped at a cup of coffee and took advantage of the moments between interviews to rub his nose. It was a mild cold, fortunately, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be irritating at times.

Quickly rubbing his hands with hand sanitizer, he opened the door again. “Next?”

A young woman rose to her feet and extended her hand. It was obvious she was a little in awe of him, but was trying to remain professional about it. “Mr. Vaughn. It’s an honor and a pleasure.”

He shook hands with her. “Come in, please.”

She waited until he offered her a chair before she took a seat, and declined the offer of coffee. Eric opened her folder and gave it the once over. “All right then, Katherine, I see you…”

He paused as he took in her name again. Katherine, easily shortened to Kate. Like the police woman who’d looked after him, expressed interest in him, but in the end, preferred to stay with Richard Castle. It was her prerogative, and he wasn’t about to try to change her mind if that’s what she wanted. Still, it was a little unusual for him to be roundly rejected like that. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t stop thinking about her.

“Mr. Vaughn?” the Katherine in the present was looking at him, concerned. “Is something wrong?”

“No, no,” he said quickly, reading over her file and setting it down in front of him, “I just…”

Whether it was good timing or his subconscious willed it to happen, his body decided to give him a readymade excuse. Turning his head to the side, he managed to get the handkerchief out just in time before jerking forward with two sharp sneezes. “Ktshh! Itshew!

“Bless you!” Katherine said, sounding surprised, and, oddly enough, concerned. He rubbed his nose and tried to sniff relatively quietly. “I’m sorry about that. I’m currently fighting a cold.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said, “If…if it’d be easier to reschedule until you’re feeling better, I’m more than willing to wait.”

“Very kind of you,” Eric smiled, and he thought he saw her hands twitch on her lap, “But I’ll be fine. It’s mostly a bit of sneezing now and then.”

She nodded and waited for him to continue the interview. He tapped her resume. “Tell me a little about your past jobs…”

Katherine answered all his questions concisely and promptly, clearly on her best professional behavior. But he couldn’t help but notice that when he rubbed his nose or gave a slight sniff, something flitted across her face, a sort of warm sympathy that made him smile a little when he saw it. He admired her restraint as well as her honest concern.

“Excellent,” he said at last, closing her folder and rising to his feet, “Thank you so much for coming out today. You’ll hear back from us in a few days.”

“Thank you, Mr. Vaughn,” she said, shaking his hand again, “And I hope you feel better soon.”

He smiled and opened the door for her. “I’ll do what I can.”

When she was gone, he sat at his desk again and looked over the next resume, interrupted by another sneeze. “Chht!” As he rubbed his nose, he smiled and made a note. Katherine would definitely be included in the next set of interviews. It was nice to see someone who showed concern for him as well as his company.

***

Another two days of taking it (fairly) easy returned Ioan to his normal state. Once he was sure he was no longer ill, his first thought concerned Alice’s bet. Coming down on set, he saw the gofer rushing around, grabbing props and consulting a clipboard. When things were a bit less hectic, he called her name.

Her head snapped around, eyes wide, a blush immediately springing to her face. She came over to him. “Yes, si…Ioan?”

He smiled, noting with a touch of amusement that her legs were shaking. “I just wanted to thank you for being so attentive to me while I was sick.”

“Oh, that,” she shrugged, but her eyes glittered, “It was nothing. I’m amazed you put up with it. I guess I’ve got a bit of a mothering instinct.”

“In any case, I’m grateful for it.” Alice, by this time, was hanging in the shadows, watching intently. He bent and kissed the gofer (pecked her, rather), on the cheek.

He wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t for her to go rigid, eyes the size of saucers. She reached up and touched the spot where he’d kissed her. Then she looked at him.

“I love you.” She squeaked.

Then, blushing a shade of red Ioan had never seen before, she ran off set. Alice came out if the shadows. “I think I owe you a twenty, Ioan. That reaction was nowhere on my radar.”

Ioan suddenly felt guilty for having used the girl as a bet. He made up his mind to give the twenty to her as a tip. Besides, anyone who could somehow magically produce a tissue box when he needed it deserved a little compensation.