Rich’s Story


Third in my ‘Strokes’ introductory series, after “Turbo’s Story”



Got me hoping you'll save me right now

Looking so crazy in love's,

Got me looking, got me looking so crazy in love.

~Crazy in Love, Beyonce


            Normally being told that one is good with underage boys isn’t exactly a compliment. But it’s a rather handy skill to have for a bouncer in a nightclub. At Strokes, the bosses didn’t like to call them bouncers. They called them security guards. Or doormen, even if they weren’t handling just the door. For the most part, they just referred to each other as the muscle.


            “I see Nik’s got himself someone new.” The man pointed across the dance floor, which was densely populated by beautiful grinding, gyrating men. Through the crowd they could just make out one of their bosses practically throwing himself at a rather muscular fellow. He was shirtless but Nik’s hands seemed permanently attached to the seat of his tight, black leather pants. “Think that one will be joining the staff after this, Rich?”


            Chuckling, he shrugged. None of the security staff could deny being felt up by Nik, sometimes on more than one occasion. Not while they were on the job, of course, and usually not even when they were employed. But it was well known that Nik had a thing for men with muscles. Heck, Nik pretty much had a thing for any guy with a pulse. Which made for fun work with the security staff: needing to understand when it was time to leave him alone in his office with a trick and when to keep an eye on him so he didn’t get hurt. Because their other boss, Sweetie, would kill them if they let Nik get hurt, despite his soft name. This time it seemed to be the former of the two situations, as they walked up the stairs to Nik’s office and the muscle man held the door open for him.


            Looking over at his partner, the two guards exchanged knowing looks. “So, Rich, you got any plans for tonight?”


            With an innocent shrug, “Maybe.” Then, quickly, his dark brown eyes shut and his head snapped down. “IHkk! HIH-Nkk! Uhhhhhh!” The deep sigh at the end had been louder than the two partially-stifled sneezes. He still raised a hand and rubbed it against the bottoms of his nostrils with a few sniffles. Then he crossed his arms over his chest and shivered, feeling alone.


            “You coming down with that cold that’s going around the place?” The other security guard asked, taking a step away from him, just in case.


            With a nod, “Think I might be. My head feels all funky.” He rubbed his hand over his bare, dark brown head, hanging his head a little with shame. It wasn’t good for a security guard to be off his game, so he didn’t exactly like admitting it. But if anyone needed to know, it was his partner there. If something went down and trouble arose, they would need to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.


            “h’Nkk!” And this was definitely a weakness.


            “Maybe you should take off early? I mean, we usually don’t get a lot of members showing up after midnight. I could handle things alone.”


            “No.” He shook his head, sniffed, then straightened up. “No, I want to finish up here. It’s just a couple hours. I can make it.” He tried to look and sound as confident as possible. “I really can, Pete.” His voice during the end of his sentence rose in pitch, and he quickly sneezed again, turning away so his face could not be seen, even if there was no spray to worry about. “h’INk!


            “Mmm,” Pete said, looking skeptical. “All right, but I’m keeping a close watch on you. And if you get even a little worse, I’m not going to think twice about calling that little boytoy of yours to come pick you up.”


            “Fair ‘nuff.” He rubbed at his nose, glad to not have to hide the action any more as he had been all night. Not to mention that he rather liked being watched over. He liked knowing that Pete was there for him. But he was much more interested in getting home to have someone else be there for him. In more ways than one. He rubbed his nose again.


            “Rich!” Recognizing the voice as Sweetie’s, he dropped his hand at once and turned towards the sound of the voice. It was amazing how he could pick voices out so clearly over the din of the music and the crowd. “We’ve got a young chicken at the bar that needs some taking care of. Do you mind?”


            Shaking his head, he smiled back at the brown haired and brown eyed half-owner of the club. “Course I don’t.” He glanced over at the bar and noticed a young man sitting there, clinging to a bottle of light beer and a cigarette. “Who’s free if he needs a driver?” he asked, hoping the answer wasn’t Robert.


            “Julia will be back in a few. I can ask her to stick around just in case.”


            He nodded in understanding, then headed to the bar by going around the dance floor instead of straight across it. The gold chains around his neck jingled as he walked. He nodded hello to Pit, who was tending bar. As Pit wasn’t one of the usual bartenders, it was probably that one of the two regular ones, if not both, were out sick. Not surprising, really. This cold had practically hit every part of the staff. One of the reasons he was determined to stay through his shift tonight was the fact that they were shorthanded as it was and he didn’t want to leave Pete and the others with an extra burden.


            He sat down on the vacant stool beside the young man who realistically couldn’t have been more than seventeen but was probably significantly younger. Either way, he had no business being in the club at this time of night or drinking at the bar, for that matter. “Hey,” he said, sounding casual and friendly.


            The young man looked over at him, looking a bit startled but sizing him up. “Hey.” Young was only the start of him. He had bright blue eyes and blond hair that was cut short on the sides and in the back but stuck up in the front behind a bandana. ‘Flyaway hair’ was what Ben-Ji liked to call it to make fun, which was always good for a laugh.


            He gestured to Pit, who gave him a glass of Pepsi automatically. “What’s your name?” he asked the chicken.


            “Whatever you want it to be.”


            Rolling his eyes, “That’s great. Straight out of an episode of The O.C. are you? Come on, kid. What’s your name?” He rubbed his nose hard, not wanting to sneeze just now. He took a sip and tried not to flinch as the carbonation bubbles tickled his throat.


            A pause, then, “Thomas.”


            “Heya, Thomas.” His tone was almost sultry. And he put on his most charming smile which made Thomas smile back. “What’re you doing here?”


            “What’s it look like?” Thomas said with a shrug. “Here to have fun. Have a nice drink, meet a cute guy, have some great sex. Same as you. Same as anybody else.”


            Shrugging, “Well, not quite same as me. See, I’m hired help around here…” He paused, nose tickling violently. Lips pursed, brow furrowed, his head snapped forward though he had turned his face away so as not to sneeze on anyone or on the bar. “Ngk!” He sniffled and rubbed a finger against his nose. “Excuse me. Sniff! As I was saying, I’m here because you’re too young to play at Strokes. I’m sorry, because you’re very hot. You’ve definitely got it going on. But I’m afraid you need to get on your way now.”


            “Too young?” the young man had clearly practiced this, because his voice changed when speaking this time, a dead giveaway.


            “Yeah. How old are you, stud?”


            “Twenty this month,” Thomas said without a moment’s hesitation.


            “Mmm,” he replied, not buying it for a second. Right now he was going with sixteen. “So, help me out here, you’d have been born in…”


            “Nineteen eighty-two,” the kid replied, very proud of himself. He’d probably memorized it from the fake ID he’d made up or bought from someone at school.


            Another sneeze was on its way. He fought it back for a few moments, then gave up and gave into it. “h’Nkk! Inggk! Ughhh…” He pinched and rubbed his nose, but it was his head that was hurting. The pressure was intense, and an awful, fatigued feeling had spread throughout his body. In defiance, he sat up straighter and continued on with his line of questioning. “Very good,” he said, pretending he’d been using the time to do the math. “Now, can you tell me what you were up to when the Challenger exploded?”


            This shocked Thomas into silence.


            Taking advantage of his state, “Not a hard question, really. It’s like JFK’s assassination or 9-11. Everyone knows where he was when it happened. Me? I was in school. It happened during the day, yeah? You know how all de school kids would get together and sit there Indian-style on that hard carpeting? Sit there watching those big televisions on those carts with wheels, and the teacher would put us in time out if we talked through an important moment. I remember sitting there an’ watching, not understanding what was going on. Do you remember that, Thomas?”


            “Yeah,” said Thomas, sounding sad and empathetic. “The explosion… the fire and the news coverage. Some of the other kids were in tears. Some just wanted to know what had happened. And my teacher jumped up and turned it off right away.”


            Nodding, “You remember all that?”




            “Interesting. Because you would have been two at the time.”


            Thomas shifted around on his stool uncomfortably. “It’s one of those things that sticks with you—”


            “Bullshit. You wouldn’t even have been in pre-school then. You should have just been honest and said you didn’t remember. How old are you really?” He stared the kid down, using that special look he reserved just for this. Something was making his head spin, but he tried to stay focused. Just a few more minutes is all it would take.


            Thomas caved. “Too young to be here.”


            “Damn right.” Thomas looked devastated and a bit worried. “Look, I ain’t gonna call the cops or anything. But there are rules here for a reason. Now Strokes doesn’t get a lot of seedy characters comin’ in here, but you never know. We don’t want kids to get hurt, and we don’t want our clientele to be hooking up with minors.” Thomas nodded. Rubbing his nose and sniffling a little, “Now I’m supposed to march you over to my boss. He’ll call your parents to come pick you up and it’ll be very embarrassing.” He hated lying like that, but it was for a good cause. Besides, maybe it wasn’t a total lie. It was possible Sweetie might do something like that, but these situations had never escalated far enough for him to find out.


            These sneezes were getting annoying. He pinched his nose, then rubbed his thumb and forefinger up and down his nose. “Nktt!” He caught his breath without too much trouble and continued quickly, because the kid looked like he was going to get sick or something at the thought of having his parents called. “Or you could just promise to stay out of here until you turn eighteen in a few years and I’ll just… forget this happened.”


            “Yes,” said Thomas, nodding adamantly. “That one. I’ll leave.”


            “I watch the doors, Kid. If I see dis beautiful face of yours around here again before you turn eighteen… straight to my bosses, aiight?”


            Thomas nodded. “Got it.” He seemed to appreciate the escort to the door a bit more than he would have had the kid been perfectly at ease in the club. Two years and he’d be right in his element.


            “Rich?” Sweetie patted his back. “That was good work. And Julia’s waiting with the car.”


            “He didn’t need a ride. He said he’s just a stop away on the yellow line.”


            “Not for the chicken,” Sweetie said, rubbing his hand up and down but continuing to pat a little. “For you. You’re sick. Go home, Rich.”


            He wasn’t sure how he’d explain the sneezing, but he wasn’t going to give in that easily. He was much too tough for that. Though he did glance over at Pete who gestured and wore an expression that insisted he hadn’t said anything to their boss about the cold. “But—”


            Apparently it was Sweetie’s turn to do some convincing. “You’re the best we’ve got, and we can’t afford to lose you to pneumonia or something worse. Believe me, I know this cold hits hard. You’ll regret it if you stick around here when you could be in bed.”


            He could not possibly leave. “I can tough it out for another couple hours.”


            “Of course you can.” Sweetie sounded so reassuring. They were heading towards the doorway now. “But you don’t have to. So go home and get better. And if I see this beautiful face of yours around here again before you’re better…. so help me I’ll sic my boyfriend on you.”


            Chuckling and nodding, “All right. But I can make it home on my own. No need to call Jules.”


            Sweetie cocked his head. “That was pretty easy, actually. I expected more of a fight. Are you sure you’re not sicker than you seem?”


            “Very funny. Heh!” He turned his head. “h’Ngk!” The truth was, he really did feel sicker than he probably looked. And all he really wanted to do was to go straight home to bed. But he worried about leaving the other security guards.


            Still, he let Sweetie walk him over to the employee lounge. His black leather jacket was in his locker, though it took him two tries to get the combination right. He pulled the jacket on then slipped his hands into his gloves which were lined with imitation fur.


            Then Sweetie walked him out, assuring him that they’d be fine in his absence. “Feel better,” Sweetie said, patting his back.


            He headed out the side door, waving to Julia to let her know he didn’t need a ride. His car, a black Jaguar which was something of a joke of course, was at the very back of the parking lot. The night was chilly, and the snow which had fallen a few days ago still lingered in piles and drifts here and there. A cloud formed in front of his face as he breathed heavily in and out of his mouth, his nose too stuffy to bother with.


            He slid into the seat and rubbed his hands together for a moment, then turned the keys in the ignition. The car came to life. The heat kicked on, though it was soft and cool while the car warmed up. The radio was on as well, tuned to a local rap station. The thumps and shouted words were familiar and oddly soothing. He smiled and switched on the headlights so that the dashboard lit up as well. There was only a quarter of a tank of gas left, he noticed, but that was more than enough.


            Before pulling out, he gave himself a look in the rearview mirror. His eyes looked tired. He rubbed them, then scrubbed hard at his whole face, across his forehead, then sliding down his cheek and resting on his chin.


            Having made the drive so often, the car probably could have made it on its own. He wished it could have, because he felt a bit distracted as he drove. His throat hurt and his nose tickled almost constantly. “h’Knttt! Heh-Inkt!” And while he was used to holding in his sneezes, it was really starting to make his head ache. After a night of looking after people in the club, he wanted someone to look after him.


            He pulled into his parking sport and gave a sigh to see the white Jeep Grand Cherokee in the next space over. On his way up the stairs to his townhouse, his health seemed to degrade completely. All the walls he’d put up, all the visuals that said he wasn’t sick, all fell down. He gave into how completely bad he was feeling. And not completely bad, but miserable, horrible, and like death warmed over. He moved more slowly and practically fell through the door once he’d reached it. “Ben-Ji?” he whimpered, closing the door behind him. He heard no reply and tried again, sounding just as pitiful but a little louder. “Ben-Ji?!”


            There was the sound of rollers across a floor then a young Asian man stuck his head out from the office and into the hallway. He was leaning back in his chair, a smile on his face. “Welcome home, Rich.”


            With a sad sniffle and his voice full of a combination of panic and neediness, “I don’t feel so good, Ben-Ji. Head hurts, throat’s on fire, nose won’t stop tickling.” He sniffed again, showing how stuffy and sniffly his nose was. “I need you,” he begged. He leaned back against the front door, almost incapable of taking another step alone.


            With a sigh, Ben-Ji got up and headed over. On his way, he grabbed a tissue box off the counter and pulled out a few out. He folded them in half and cupped them gently over the offending nose. “Blow, Baby.” When that was done to his satisfaction, Ben-Ji reached up and gave a light kiss. “I’ll put you to bed now, okay?”


            A nod. Another sniffle. And he was helped up the long staircase. Their pace was slow, and impeded several times as sneezes struck. “hehh-ehhh-Inkk!” He rubbed at his nose and was relieved when Ben-Ji handed tissues to him so he could blow his nose again.


            Ben-Ji walked him up and deposited him on their bed. “Stay put,” he said, with a gentle touch to the smooth, bald head before him. He flipped on the lights on the way out of the room, but turned them down so they were dim.


            “ehh-Ink-uhhhh…” The build-up and breath afterwards were louder than the sneeze itself, but the whole thing made his head swim. He hunched over, elbows on his thighs, and put his head in his hands. He knew he should get out of his clothes, but all he could manage to do was to pull his gloves off and drop them on the floor. He was still sitting there, sniffling weakly, when Ben-Ji returned. He looked up apologetically.


            “Shhh,” Ben-Ji said, shaking his head, the jet black hair waving. He sat down on the edge of the bed and handed over a Tylenol Cold capsule and a tall glass of orange juice. “Take this,” he said. Then his hands reached under and around to find the snaps on the leather jacket. Carefully he peeled the jacket off, and with it the rest of the clothes and gold chains.


            “Wait… have to sneeze…” The orange juice was set down on the night stand and Ben-Ji pulled some more tissues out of the box he’d brought from downstairs.


            “It’s all right,” Ben-Ji said, snuggling close to the larger man. “Just let it out, Baby.” He cupped several tissues over the twitching nose.


            “hehh-Chxxshh! ehhh-Ikshhh!” It felt much better to sneeze this way, especially with Ben-Ji pressed up against him and petting his head comfortingly. Then he found himself being eased back against the bed. The maroon sheets and comforter were pulled over his nude body, and then Ben-Ji undressed and slid under as well.


            Ben-Ji tugged the gold hoop earring and kissed the chocolatey-brown cheek. “You’re warm,” he observed. “Got a fever on top of a bad cold, I see. Well, I’ll take care of that.”


            “hehhh-Chixhh! Sniff!” Ben-Ji’s grip changed, inviting another blow. “Thags. Sniff! I know you have work to do. I didn’t…”


            “Hush-shush,” Ben-Ji murmured, snuggling closer. “You feel sick, right?” A nod. “And you need your boy.” Another nod. “Then you just rest and let me do my thing for my big teddy bear.” A soft kiss and a nuzzle produced mutual sighs.


            He felt Ben-Ji’s hand gently stroke his chest, and he did not resist the urge to cough. His whole body shook, though it felt anchored to the bed thanks to Ben-Ji’s hold on him. His head spun a little, but it cleared with another kiss to his cheek. And when his breath caught with the need to sneeze, tissues were right there against his nose for him to sneeze freely into.


            It felt crazy to say out loud, but he really loved the way the man loved him. Let Nik have his quick fucks. Let Strokes try to cope without him for a night or two. There was nothing that felt quite so good as Ben-Ji’s caring. It was almost worth getting sick. “hehh-Ihkshhhh!


            Ben-Ji wiped his nose for him, then continued to rub his chest soothingly. In a whisper, “That’s it. Close your eyes. Listen to my voice… my heartbeat… my breaths. I’m right here for you, Dwane. I’m everything you need.”


            Dwane nodded weakly and drifted off to sleep in Ben-Ji’s arms.


Call your name two or three times in a row,

Such a funny thing for me to try to explain,

How I'm feeling and my pride is the one to blame.

'Cuz I know I don't understand,

Just how your love your doing no one else can.

~Crazy in Love, Beyonce